Cassie VanSprange calls them her “miracle babies”—and it’s easy to understand why. Grace was born weighing 2 pounds 4 ounces, which already seems impossibly small, but Payton was 1 pound 14 ounces, which placed her in the “micro preemie” category. For two weeks after they were born neither Cassie nor her husband Paul were allowed to touch their babies because of the girls’ delicate immune systems. Even after they were allowed to begin skin-to-skin contact, they had to be incredibly careful while handling their tiny daughters.
“They truly are my miracle babies,” says Cassie.
Finally, after 92 days in the NICU at Helen Devos Children’s Hospital, both girls were cleared to join their parents at home. That was five years ago. Today, Grace and Payton are preparing for their first day of kindergarten. Miraculously, neither girl has any lingering health effects from their early start.
After their birth, creating a healthy environment for their girls became priority number one for the VanSpranges. Cassie says they struggled early on because not only were they first-time parents, they were also dealing with the difficulties of a premature baby times two. Health factors that didn’t seem important before the birth of their daughters suddenly became the main focus—factors like air quality and the cleanliness of their home’s air ducts because of the twins’ chronic lung disease diagnosis (caused by abnormal lung development and common in babies born prematurely). The nutritional value of foods was now more important than ever—the girls ate a lot of avocados early on because the high fat and calorie content helped them put on weight. “Before I became a parent I didn’t pay attention to sugar or artificial sweeteners. I didn’t know what that all meant,” says Cassie.
The birth of her twins was Cassie’s kick-start to a healthier lifestyle.
“I realized that in order to be the best mom I could be, I had to be the best version of myself. I had to be healthy—mentally, emotionally and physically.”
Eating healthy and getting enough sleep (difficult with one newborn, let alone two) was paramount in the early days after the twins came home. Cassie made her mental health a priority as well. Nightly walks with the girls became her ritual and a chance for the babies to get fresh air and experience life as normal newborns. Along with the opportunity to destress, the nightly walks also provided Cassie with a social outlet as she could talk with her neighbors while she was out.
In becoming her healthiest self, Cassie says her community played a vital role. “Everyone was there to help pull us through.” The twins’ stay in the NICU was spent in a communal ward as part of an ongoing study to look at how babies develop when around other newborns versus when they stay in a private hospital room. This gave the VanSpranges a sense of community during a vulnerable time, providing comfort and support alongside parents who were going through the same thing. Her coworkers threw her a baby shower in the hospital and nominated her for a program that provided her with extra paid time off so she could spend more time with her girls. Maternal support groups provided Cassie with an outlet to talk with others who shared her experience and who understood the ins and outs of caring for preemies. The VanSpranges lean on each other for support as well, whether that means working out together or cooking healthy dishes. Cassie believes asking for support and relying on your community makes you stronger. “Accepting help is not accepting defeat.”
Cassie says Priority Health has made things easier in managing her own health. She looks forward to her yearly biometric screening so she can see tangible results from her healthy living efforts. Care management and social work programs make it possible for people to manage difficult situations, she says.
Now that the twins are older, making healthy choices every day has become even more essential. “They’re at the age where they want to copy everything we do, so it’s important to show them healthy habits.” When the girls see their mom and dad doing yoga they want to join. When they see their parents drinking water instead of soda they drink water too. Along with getting involved in sports like soccer and baseball, they encourage the girls to play outside and explore in the woods around their house. Their family has what they call a “no thank you bites” rule—before either of the girls can say “no thank you” to eating a new food they have to take at least one bite. Cassie incorporates more vegetables into their diet by making smoothies and garnishes them with bright paper umbrellas to make healthy eating fun. “We’re setting them up to make their own good decisions in the future,” she says.
Living a healthy lifestyle is a promise Cassie made to herself when her girls were born, and keeping that promise is vital. “If I give up on that promise, what other promises will I break?” She says. “To be the best mom I can be I have to try to be in the best health I can be.” For this family, living their healthiest life may have started with two little reasons, but the benefits have been infinite.
The VanSpranges are four of 996,000 reasons that Priority Health works to provide a healthier approach to health care.