FROM GRIEF TO LEGACY

At the annual Seymour March for Babies event next weekend, a group of family and friends will walk together with the words “Team Marcello and Manuel” on their T-shirts.

The group will be remembering twin boys who were born Dec. 27, 2013, extremely premature after 23 weeks gestation. Such babies are known as micropremies.

Marcello, who weighed 1.6 pounds, passed away April 11, 2014. Manuel, who was 1.2 pounds, passed away March 8, 2014.

Following their deaths, their parents, Salatiel “Sal” and Jodi Mendez, attended last year’s annual March of Dimes-sponsored 3.1-mile walk in Seymour. The Columbus residents have family ties to Jackson County.

The couple and their three sons will be there again this year and will serve as the Seymour Ambassador Family after they were chosen due to their connection to the March of Dimes’ mission.

“It will be emotional, but it’s also leaving a legacy for them of their short time here on earth,” Jodi Mendez said of her twin babies. “It’s also raising awareness for the program.”

The March for Babies is set for April 25, with registration at 8:30 a.m. and the 3.1-mile walk beginning at 9 a.m. at Seymour High School. Kids Fest will be at 10 a.m.

The March of Dimes has been conducting walks in Jackson County since at least 1999.

The event is free, but donations are encouraged. Money goes to fund the March of Dimes mission, which is to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality and to support prenatal wellness programs, Neonatal Intensive Care in Family Support and research grants.

In 2013, March of Dimes funded 382 research grants.

Last year, about 150 people participated in the Jackson County event, which raised $23,000 of the $30,000 goal. The goal is $30,000 again this year.

“Currently, we are $15,000 short,” said Andrea Simonton, senior community director of the Indiana Chapter/Central Division of March of Dimes.

She said walkers and volunteers are still being sought.

‘We were fortunate’

Jodi Mendez, who was born and raised in Seymour, found out she was pregnant with twins in September 2013. The twins would be the couple’s fourth and fifth children after their three sons, Mateo, 10, Macario, 7, and Marquez, 3.

Originally, the couple thought they were having fraternal twins. But at 16 weeks, they learned the babies were identical. Doctors also diagnosed the babies with twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome.

The disorder can happen among identical twins who share a placenta, affecting the connection in the babies’ blood vessels. One baby (the recipient) will receive more blood flow, while the other baby (referred to as the donor) receives too little, according to the American Pregnancy Association.

From that point on, the Mendezes began seeing twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome specialists, traveling to Cincinnati and Indianapolis often so doctors could monitor the pregnancy.

At 23 weeks, Jodi Mendez went into labor at Columbus Regional Hospital. She then was airlifted to St. Vincent Women’s Hospital in Indianapolis.

Doctors tried to stop her labor, but she progressed, and a decision was made to do a controlled cesarean section to provide the best chance for the babies’ survival.

When the boys were delivered — Marcello and then Manuel — doctors said a good sign would be if they cried on their own.

“We were fortunate because they whimpered,” Sal Mendez said.

The twins were immediately taken by the neonatologists to have them intubated and their umbilical lines started.

‘Hoped for the best’

Being so premature, doctors gave the boys a 5 percent survival rate.

According to March of Dimes, one in nine babies in the U.S. is born prematurely, and it’s the leading cause of death for children age 5 and younger.

As a labor and delivery nurse for IU Health in Bloomington, Jodi Mendez said she knew her babies had a slim chance of being fully healthy, but she continued to have faith.

“We kind of just hoped for the best because we didn’t know how long they would live after they were born,” she said.

A blog was created so the family could record their journey with the babies, uploading daily updates and photos. It was shared among friends, family and strangers, reaching seven countries and 30,000 views with people commenting with encouragement.

But after numerous tests, surgeries and prayers from around the world, Marcello passed away after 72 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Manuel died after 106 days.

Creating a legacy

Today, the twins are buried in Immanuel Lutheran Cemetery in Seymour, and they are visited weekly by their family.

“Marquez will say, ‘Oh, there’s my little brother there,’” Sal Mendez said of his son. “They (the three brothers) are fully aware of the situation that has occurred, and I think for them, it has helped them in the grieving process.”

Besides talking about the twins and keeping a framed photo of them at their house, their involvement with the March of Dimes event creates a special day dedicated to not only their family but others who have shared a similar experience.

The Mendezes attended their first event last year and plan to be involved for years to come, making it a family tradition to help create awareness and raise funds to combat prematurity through the organization’s research and education.

“If what we do helps another family not have to lose a child to a premature birth like we did, even saving one child will be a benefit,” Sal Mendez said.

Their involvement also will keep the few memories of the boys alive.

“It’s neat to start a legacy for them and continue remembering them,” Jodi Mendez said.

If you go

What: March for Babies in Jackson County, benefiting March of Dimes

When: April 25; registration at 8:30 a.m.; 3.1-mile walk at 9 a.m.

Where: Seymour High School

Information and registration: Marchforbabies.org/event/seymour

At a glance

To volunteer at March of Dimes, contact Andrea Simonton at asimonton@marchofdimes.org or 317-285-0202.

Mendez family

Jodi and Sal Mendez of Columbus

Children: Mateo, 10, Macario, 7, and Marquez, 3. Lost their twin babies, Manuel and Marcello, who were born premature last year.

Named Seymour Ambassador Family for the March of Dimes event in Jackson County.

Jodi was born and raised in Seymour and has family in Jackson County. Sal is from Plymouth.