When Beth and Rick Hutchinson (both USA) welcomed their son into the world on 5 June 2020 – several months ahead of schedule – he was so small that he could fit into the palm of one of their hands.
Weighing a mere 340 g (11.9 oz) – about the same as a can of soup, or one-tenth of the average weight for a full-term newborn – the initial prognosis for Richard Scott William Hutchinson was far from optimistic.
In fact, after he was first transferred to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children’s Minnesota hospital in Minneapolis, doctors felt duty bound to prepare his parents for the worst.
"When Rick and Beth received prenatal counselling on what to expect with a baby born so early, they were given a 0% chance of survival by our neonatology team," said Richard’s neonatologist at Children’s Minnesota, Dr Stacy Kern.
"I knew the first few weeks of Richard’s life would be very difficult, but I felt that if he could make it through that, he would be a survivor."
Despite a due date of 13 October 2020, Beth experienced medical complications and unexpectedly went into labour almost four months earlier than anticipated. After an intensive discussion with the doctors, a plan was agreed to deliver Richard and then do all they could to sustain him.
Richard was born at a gestational age of 21 weeks 2 days, making him 131 days premature. The standard gestational period for a baby is 40 weeks.
5 June 2021 marked his first birthday – a landmark for any child, but none more so than for "miracle baby" Richard. Guinness World Records also took this milestone as an opportunity to officially recognise him as the most premature baby to survive.
This surpasses a record that stood for three-and-a-half decades. James Elgin Gill was born to Brenda and James Gill (all Canada) in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, at a gestational age of 21 weeks 5 days, or 128 days premature, on 20 May 1987.
More recently, reports indicate that this was matched by Frieda Mangold, who was born to Yvonne and John Mangold (all Germany) in Fulda, Germany, on 7 November 2010 at the same age.
"It doesn’t feel real," admitted Beth, when asked how it feels to have broken such a long-unchallenged record.
"We’re still surprised about it. But we’re happy. It’s a way we can share his story to raise awareness about premature births."
Richard saw in his first birthday at home with his parents and other relations; both Beth and Rick come from large families. They also have three dogs, who apparently Richard "loves to hang out with".
It has doubtlessly been a tough year for the Hutchinson family. On top of all the natural worry and stress of knowing that the chances were stacked against their child, COVID-19 meant they could not stay overnight with Richard or share some of the visiting duties with other family members.
This meant that Rick and Beth made the journey every single day across the state border from their home in St Croix County, Wisconsin, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to spend as much time as they could with their son.
"We made sure we were there to give him support," Rick said. "I think that helped him get through this because he knew he could count on us."
Their daily visits included celebrating some key holiday "firsts", including July Fourth (which happened to coincide with Richard’s one-month birthday) and Halloween.
Dr Kern believes Rick and Beth’s dedication played a key part in their son’s success.
"I credit his miraculous survival to his wonderful parents who were there for him every step of the way and to the entire neonatology team at Children’s Minnesota. It takes a village to care for and support these babies until the time they are ready to go home."
Rick and Beth fought for Richard day after day and never stopped advocating for their baby through it all. Their strength and ability to stay positive and hopeful even during the most stressful and difficult times was inspiring - Dr Stacy Kern, Children’s Minnesota neonatologist
As you might expect, the first couple of months were the most challenging. "The first month they weren’t even sure he was going to make it," Beth revealed.
"It was really hard. You know in the back of your mind that his odds weren't great."
However, inspired by their son’s own resilience, they made sure they were allowed access and were continuously kept informed of the latest developments.
Beth's advice to other parents of premature babies is to not give up.
"Advocate for your child as much as you can. Be nosey because it is your child, and you deserve to know what is going on."
Fast-forward six months, and Richard was going from strength to strength, defying all expectations.
In early December 2020, after more than half a year at the NICU, he was given the all-clear to leave the hospital and head home.
It was an emotional day not just for the family but also the medical team who had been there with Richard every step of the way. Dr Kern told us, "The day Richard was discharged from the NICU was such a special day. I remember picking him up out of his crib and just holding him with tears in my eyes.
"I couldn’t believe this was the same little boy that once was so sick, that I feared he may not survive. The same little boy that once fit in the palm of my hand, with skin so translucent that I could see every rib and vessel in his tiny body. I couldn’t help but squeeze him and tell him how proud I was of him.
"He taught me what it truly means to be resilient and, every time I look at him, I’m reminded how strong and amazing all these little beautiful babies are!"
He wasn’t completely out of the woods, though, still requiring regular check-ups and relying on a few pieces of assistive equipment day to day. "I think we both worried," said Beth.
"When he came home, he was still on oxygen, a pulse oximeter machine and a pump for his feeding tube.
"We are working on getting him off all of them, but it takes time. He has come a long way and is doing amazing."
The Hutchinsons have only the highest admiration and gratitude for the doctors and nurses who cared for Richard at Children’s Minnesota.
"They are the most amazing team," said Beth. "We love the staff that took care of our son, and wish we could share him with them all the time. He was called the 'miracle baby' when he was there. I agree with them."
He is a very happy baby. Always has a smile on the adorable little face of his. His bright blue eyes and smile get me every time - Beth Hutchinson
Dr Kern considers herself lucky to have played a part in Richard’s record-breaking story.
"Richard is the youngest baby I have ever had the honour to care for. I feel so blessed and honoured that I was the neonatologist on service the week Richard was born. To be a part of his incredible story... I can’t even put into words how amazing that feels."
"I think Richard’s story has inspired so many people around the world and I think we will all continue to learn from him. Thank you, Richard, Beth and Rick for all you have taught us. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for you."
All images courtesy of Rick and Beth Hutchinson