Calvin Lepp was locally famous almost from the moment he was born, and over the course of the next 120 days, readers of this newspaper followed the progress of “the medicine dropper baby.”
Born on Jan. 5, 1942, Lepp arrived several months premature at General Hospital and weighed 855 grams, or just under 2 pounds, which at the time was believed to be the smallest baby to ever survive. For weeks, doctors and nurses fed Lepp with a medicine dropper, one-sixth of an ounce of formula at a time.
“A dozen times General hospital physicians all but gave him up,” the newspaper reported. “His tiny body actually turned black on these occasions.”
Lepp lived in an oxygen tent and was given frequent “respiratory and cardiac stimulants.” Doctors and nurses were giddy that they were able to save him. When he left the hospital, he was “a husky, blue-eyed perfectly normal child,” weighing a whopping 8 pounds.
On Wednesday, Hennepin County Medical Center, the current incarnation of General Hospital, is having a 75th birthday party for Lepp and using the opportunity to celebrate more than seven decades of caring for premature babies. Lepp’s story was rediscovered by happenstance due to a chance meeting between Lepp and Kolleen Amon, lead neonatal nurse practitioner who works in HCMC’s Newborn Intensive Care Unit.
The two met at Tavern 4&5 in Eden Prairie, a kind of neighborhood “Cheers,” where Amon and her husband go to eat and schmooze with friends. The tavern is where Lepp holds court many afternoons at the bar’s corner seat. He is retired and his wife died a few years ago, so he considers the regulars who stop by the tavern as kind of an extended family. One of those regulars even made a street sign that says “Cal’s Corner” and fastened it to a pole above his stool.
Cal was talking to Amon about his wife, Barb, who died of breast cancer, and how important the nurses were in caring for her at the end. “I told him I was a nurse practitioner in HCMC’s NICU, and he shared that he was the smallest baby ever saved by HCMC [General Hospital] nursery,” she said.
As a nurse who works with premature babies, Amon was fascinated by Lepp’s story. Cal brought in the old newspaper clipping, and the two have been pals ever since.
HCMC treated 166 preemies in 2016. About 30 to 40 per year weigh less than 1,800 grams at birth, and about 10 per year weigh less than 1,000 grams at birth. The length of stay for infants around Lepp’s birth weight was 40-90 days, with a 100 percent survival rate. As far back as the 1930s, General Hospital had the lowest mortality rate for premature babies in the nation.
When Lepp was born, they wouldn’t even let his mother hold him. “They were worried about the risk of infection,” said Amon. “But now we know that putting the baby with mom and keeping them with her is the best thing for them.”
When I met with Lepp and Amon last week, I was curious to see whether Lepp’s premature birth affected his height. He was sitting at his normal place at the tavern when I walked in, so I couldn’t immediately tell. Then Lepp stood up; I was in his shadow.
“I’m 6-foot-5, 260 pounds,” he said with a grin. “By the first grade, I was the tallest kid in the classroom.”
Gary Winter, a friend of Lepp’s, was sitting nearby. “When you decided to grow, you grew,” Winter said.
Amon said that some premature babies can suffer from various health problems, though procedures and medicine have made it much more rare than when Lepp was born. Of the approximately 3.9 million infants born in the U.S. in a year, about 28,000 weigh less than 2¾ pounds. About 400 to 600 infants become legally blind because of a condition called retinopathy of prematurity, which can affect one or both eyes.
Lepp’s left eye turned slightly inward when he was in the oxygen tent, so he is partly blind. It kept him out of sports as a child and cost him a job at the Post Office because of it, but he has been otherwise healthy.
“I looked it up and at 855 grams, Cal probably had less than a 1 percent chance of making it,” said Amon. “Back in 1942, there was no neonatal unit, pediatricians were just kind of winging it. He’s kind of a miracle. ”