When Ryan and Brittany Hebrink joined their first March of Dimes March for Babies in May 2007, it was with a mix of emotions. The couple, who live in Sacred Heart, had just gone through a high-risk pregnancy.
Their twin sons were born prematurely on April 9, 2007.
Harrison lived for only a short time after birth. Hudson, his surviving twin, was hospitalized for nearly a month in the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Mary's Hospital in Rochester.
The Hebrinks brought Hudson home on May 5, had him baptized the next weekend and walked in the March for Babies the weekend after that. They've raised funds for the event every year since.
It's a way of not only honoring Harrison's brief life but also of increasing funding and awareness to lower the incidence of premature birth and improve infant survival rates, the Hebrinks say.
"It just seemed very fitting," said Brittany Hebrink.
On Saturday they'll don their team T-shirts and join a three- to five-mile walk that begins at 10 a.m. at the Marshall Middle School. The event is one of almost 20 being sponsored around Minnesota this spring by the March of Dimes.
This year is particularly special for the Hebrinks: They've been chosen as the 2010 ambassadors of the March for Babies in Marshall.
"We felt very honored to be able to do this," Brittany said.
Over the past three years, the couple and their team, Harrison's Legacy, have raised $8,000 for research and education by the March of Dimes.
They have support from a close-knit circle of family and friends. Ryan, a standout athlete who grew up in Sacred Heart, works as a physical therapist at Affiliated Community Medical Centers in Willmar and coaches high school football at Renville County West. Brittany is from neighboring Granite Falls and works in marketing at Impact Innovations in Maynard.
At least 40 people are now active with Harrison's Legacy.
"A lot of the donations have come from family and friends," Brittany said. "Every year there's a little bit more momentum and interest. More and more people are aware of it."
Close to half a million infants are born prematurely in the U.S. each year. This rate has been escalating since the early 1990s, although the incidence of preterm birth more recently has declined.
The causes of prematurity are diverse: Maternal or fetal stress is thought to sometimes play a role, as do infection and bleeding. Women who are pregnant with multiples also risk going into labor too soon. In about 40 percent of cases, though, there's no clear cause.
Many infants born early, before 37 weeks' gestation, face lifelong health issues such as blindness, developmental delays and chronic lung disease. Some are so underdeveloped they don't survive.
"You realize how fragile life is," Ryan Hebrink said. "It's really amazing that so many are born normal and healthy."
The Hebrinks were halfway through Brittany's first pregnancy when they learned she was carrying twins. But there also was bad news: The twins were monoamniotic-monochorionic, a rare, high-risk condition in which identical twins share the amniotic sac and placenta.
Both babies were delivered by cesarean at Methodist Hospital in Rochester. They arrived more than eight weeks early, Harrison weighing 4 pounds and Hudson weighing 3 pounds, 7 ounces.
"They actually were good-sized for how early they were," Ryan said.
Harrison died shortly after birth. Hudson was whisked by ambulance to the neonatal intensive care unit at nearby St. Mary's Hospital, where he stayed for almost a month.
Hudson is now a healthy, active 3-year-old who shows no trace of his challenging start in life, his parents said.
What does he like most? "Wheels -- cars and tractors," his father laughed. "He loves to run."
"He likes to be rocked," Brittany said. "He likes his blankie."
Last August the Hebrinks welcomed home another son, Hampton, after an event-free pregnancy and delivery.
Brittany's first pregnancy, normally a time of joy and anticipation, was marred instead with stress and anxiety. "We were on the edge of our seats the whole time," Ryan said. "What a difference the second time."
"Until you go through it, you don't realize. We'll never look at pregnancy the same again," Brittany said.
The Hebrinks said they've learned to appreciate the advances that have taken place in managing high-risk pregnancy and premature birth.
Knowing ahead of time that they faced a high-risk pregnancy and delivery was critical, Ryan said. "The medical team can plan. That's probably the most important. They were as prepared as they could possibly be."
When Hudson had difficulty breathing shortly after birth, his underdeveloped lungs were successfully treated with surfactant, a therapy whose development was partially funded by the March of Dimes.
"Without those advancements, he would really have struggled," Ryan said.
Walking in the March for Babies has combined the support of family and friends with the benefits that funding for research and education can bring, Brittany said.
"It's a marrying of the two for us -- the tangible and the spiritual," she said. "We just feel really blessed. We were able to meet both of our boys. Without that, we might not have met either of them."