RIVERVIEW — For Nicole Ferrante, having a premature baby meant giving birth at 36 or maybe even 35 weeks.
She and fiance Aaron Visnovec never imagined son John-Luke would be born at just 23 weeks and four days of gestation.
Those four days put John-Luke just past the minimum gestational age that Tampa General Hospital attempts life-saving measures for what is called a micro-preemie, or a baby born before 26 weeks gestation.
For Ferrante, who has two other children, ages 5 and 10, this pregnancy included complications with her placenta that doctors didn't discover until nearly midway through her pregnancy.
"We had the genetic testing done and blood work came back high for him being at risk of spina bifida, which was really weird because that doesn't run in either of our families, so we followed up with an extensive ultrasound," Ferrante said. "The doctor and ultrasound tech came back and said the reason he was at increased risk in the blood work was because there was a good possibility that his placenta didn't attach properly.
"At that point nobody had said anything to me about my placenta, and go figure he was born with a placental abruption."
A placental abruption can cause a host of issues for babies in utero, including a lack of oxygen and nutrition.
Ferrante experienced preterm labor at 21 weeks, only to be met with a grim prognosis by medical professionals.
"They pretty much said there was nothing they could do for him at the hospital if he had been born, whether he was breathing on his own or not," Ferrante said. "So they told me to go home and resume normal activity and that there was pretty much nothing more they could do for me."
After putting herself on strict bed rest, Ferrante gave birth to John-Luke — who weighed only 1 pound, 13 ounces — via caesarean section on July 1, 2015.
Meanwhile, Visnovec neared his final semester of nursing school and experienced the trauma of having his own child in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with an in-depth medical knowledge.
"The weeks he's doing well, you're able to hold him, and I wanted to be there to hold him," Visnovec said. "And the weeks he's doing really bad, I wanted to be there because I didn't know if he was going to die.
"I knew if he did make it through, and really even if he didn't, I'd have a family to take care of. It was really tough."
After heart surgery, respiratory problems, eye exams and 115 long days in Tampa General's neonatal intensive care unit, John-Luke was able to go home a day before his original due date, a miracle in itself, and something Ferrante and Visnovec were told not to count on.
While their miracle baby continues to deal with health issues, he surprises his parents each day with his cognitive abilities being on track for his adjusted age of 5 months.
Before leaving the hospital with their 4-month-old, Tampa General director of nursing Pam Sanders asked the parents if John-Luke would serve as a TGH ambassador for March of Dimes.
"They've been awesome," Ferrante said. "When we spend that much time with them you have to be able to trust that when you're there they're going to give you that space to be able to bond with your kid, but that you're also going to be able to trust that when you're not there, your kid is in the best hands possible."
Visnovec, who now works as a neonatal intensive care nurse at the same hospital where his son fought for his life, is proud to be fully immersed in the family culture they found at Tampa General.
"It definitely made me want to work there, just with how everybody is a family," Visnovec said. "From the cleaning staff to the doctors, they all work together and talk and are friendly with each other.
"I saw that and said that's where I want to be."
Together with family and friends, the proud parents have already raised more than $500 for March of Dimes. Ferrante and her two other children will be part of a team of 15 people involved in Saturday's March for Babies at Amalie Arena.
Both parents say that through the organization they hope to help bring awareness and more discussion about premature births like John-Luke's.
"To have a baby born that early and try to find support, nobody really wanted to talk about it," Ferrante said. "There were people that would report the photos on his Facebook page when I would post them because they thought seeing a baby that small was obscene or something.
"If we don't talk about it, people don't know about it."
Contact Kelsey Sunderland at firstname.lastname@example.org.