TAMPA — Jason and Ashley Cantin welcomed their first baby the day after Christmas in 2008.
Eleanor was the beginning of the family they had always wanted. Four kids; that was the plan.
But the next child came sooner than they ever imagined.
By February 2009, Ashley was pregnant again, and by July, their second baby had arrived 16 weeks premature.
Sandra weighed less than 2 pounds and wasn't breathing after an emergency C-section. Doctors warned that her chances of survival were slim.
But in an apartment off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, a father and mother will celebrate Christmas morning with two blue-eyed, blond-haired little girls. It will be the Cantin family's first Christmas together in their own home.
They plan to open presents and eat a pancake breakfast, which may sound unremarkable, but for Ashley and Jason it's an extraordinary gift.
"Christmas miracles really do happen," Ashley said.
• • •
Ashley, 28, and Jason, 37, met through friends. She was attending college and working various jobs, and he ran his own flooring business.
They dated for six years. Before getting married in 2007, they talked a lot about what they wanted in a family.
She wished for six kids; he wanted one. Four seemed like a good compromise. They knew without debate that they would raise them in a loving, Catholic home with an emphasis on morals.
It took just a few months to get pregnant with Eleanor. Elated after four home pregnancy tests confirmed the news, Ashley waited impatiently for her husband to get home from work.
"Congratulations," she wrote in a baby card. "We're expecting."
Ashley gave birth at Brandon Regional Hospital on Dec. 26, 2008. Though a healthy 9 pounds, 12 ounces, Eleanor spent two days in the neonatal intensive care unit as a precaution because Ashley was running a high fever.
The Cantins remember seeing all the tiny babies in the unit and thinking how terrible it must be for the worried parents.
Little did they know what awaited them.
Two months later, they learned Ashley was expecting again. They would have two children, just 10 ½ months apart.
"This is so not happening," Ashley thought.
• • •
The next shock: While vacationing in Pennsylvania, Ashley began spotting.
She was 23½ weeks pregnant. Her father — a physician — insisted that she get checked out.
The obstetrician Ashley visited discovered she was fully dilated. Medical staff whisked her away on a gurney to a nearby hospital, then transported her by ambulance to a more advanced facility.
Doctors told the Cantins their baby was tiny and weak, and left it up to the couple to determine how far they wanted to go in trying to save her. No question, the couple said. Do everything you can.
Four days later, Sandra came into the world. It was July 28, 2009 — just seven months after Eleanor's birth.
A haze of hospitals, monitors, tubes, tears and prayers followed. Even for a premature baby, Sandra's early months would not be typical. She battled infections, renal failure, eye surgery, chronic lung disease and fainting spells. She required ventilators to breathe.
Jason held his daughter for the first time when she was 4 days old. He had to go back to Florida for work. The medical staff worried Sandra might not live long enough for him to return.
• • •
Last year, after 149 days in neonatal intensive care units in two states, Sandra finally was well enough to leave.
It was Dec. 22, 2009, three days before a Christmas celebration at Ashley's parents' house back in New Tampa.
A holiday the Cantins had always loved now had even more significance because of their daughters.
"That's when they came home to us," Ashley said.
The past year has not been easy. Sandra, now 16 months, functions as a 5-month-old. She has been hospitalized for multiple illnesses and requires a weekly regimen of therapies and doctors' visits. Cochlear implants this fall gave her the ability to hear.
Ashley, a stay-at-home mom, juggles managing her younger daughter's medical needs with providing enough attention to Eleanor, who turns 2 Sunday. Unsure of what lies ahead for Sandra's care — they expect she will be diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy — Ashley and Jason do not plan to have any more children.
They are not bitter about this adjusted vision for their family, or any of the challenges they've faced.
"We truly feel that we're blessed," Jason said. "We feel like we were given these two kids because we could handle it."
Today in their apartment, the Cantins are grateful: for their parents who supported them during the long road from Pennsylvania back to Florida; for the medical insurance that provided for Sandra's care; for the strength they found in each other during a nightmare that drives so many couples apart.
And for the little blond miracle who lights up whenever her big sister enters a room.
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.