BEVERLY — They call him a miracle.
Neil Beswick was born 15 weeks ahead of schedule. He weighed 1 pound, 3 ounces. He was 11.5 inches long; his feet 1.5 inches in length. His mother was on the brink of organ failure and his heart beat wasn't showing up on monitors. Doctors feared the worst.
Six months later, Neil is alive and well — a credit to 160 days of constant attention, two parents who refused to give up and an angel they met at BestBuy.
Now their lives are nearing normalcy, or at least what passes for that with a new baby in the house. It's what Neil's mother calls "the new normal."
Their story began just after New Year's last January, when Beverly residents Tiffany Collins, 42, and Paul Beswick, 43, were sitting in a doctor's office. Collins was six weeks pregnant with their first child, and they were in for an ultrasound. Later they heard Neil's heartbeat for the first time.
But by May, 24 weeks into her term, Collins' blood pressure was spiking due to a pregnancy disorder called preeclampsia. Her liver tests were coming back with significant problems, and her North Shore doctors were worried about seizures as the pressure kept building.
"They fast-tracked me to Tufts," Collins said. "We went to Tufts and never left."
At Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Collins had barely reached 25 weeks of gestation when, on May 23, things took a sudden turn for the worse.
"That morning, I got sick, and they knew something was going on. So they watched," Collins said. "Over the course of the day, my body started to go downhill, and I didn't know this, but Paul told me that they lost [Neil] on the monitor."
Neil was born by cesarean section 15 weeks ahead of schedule to save both his life and his mother's.
"They didn't want to do it. They don't take it lightly," Collins said. "... But it's what had to happen."
A world of problems
The first week was a blur, but traumatic enough that both Collins and Beswick say they experience flashbacks and other symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.
"They come at you with information, more information, more information," Collins said. Beswick was "literally running from floor to floor. 'Do I go here? Or am I with the baby?'"
Even that was a tough concept to accept.
"You expect a little, pink bundle — a little, fat baby — and that's not what happened," Collins said.
"People say congratulations," she said, and Beswick added, "It doesn't feel like congratulations."
When Neil was born, his eyes were fused closed. Machines were hooked up to blast air into his lungs so they didn't seal shut, and a tube fed him through his nose as his body started activating processes that weren't designed to operate for months.
After a few days, he started having serious problems, his parents said. "His breathing. His lungs. The bleeds. Kidneys failed."
Neil suffered two brain bleeds, one early on and a more serious one sometime later, Collins said. Several times, hospital staff sat the parents down for "end-of-life conversations."
"Do you want to continue?" they'd ask her, Collins said.
But for the new parents, "it was never a question. We didn't even have to talk about it — yes."
Help from 'an angel'
And then, things started taking a turn for the better.
"Eight weeks in, we met another preemie by accident," Beswick said.
They were in BestBuy on Route 1 in Saugus to get repair work done on a cellphone, he said. There, they met Katie Oliver, a 23-year-old Southern New Hampshire University student who recognized an identifying tag from the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit that the parents were still wearing.
"I saw the name tag with baby feet on it," Oliver said.
As soon as Collins asked about the sticker and told them she was born prematurely, the questions began.
"I said to her, 'Are you normal?' And she said yes," Collins said. "I said, 'Did you go to high school?' and she said, 'I'm in college.'"
The interrogation turned into a conversation.
"She had a very tough story," Beswick added. "Her mother spent six months in the NICU with her."
"She weighed less than a pound," Collins continued. "They had her mother buy a casket."
As they talked, Oliver mentioned a "heartbeat bear" she had when she was born. The bear played a sound similar to a heartbeat heard from inside the womb.
Oliver told the struggling parents she still sleeps with it today, and they mentioned they had never heard of it.
When they returned a week later to pick up their phone, Oliver wasn't there. But their phone was, and with it was a newly purchased heartbeat bear.
Oliver said meeting Collins and Beswick left a powerful impression on her, even if the interaction was purely over the counter.
"It hit home for me," Oliver said. "It's tough to see where they're coming from."
It had an even bigger effect on Neil's parents, who met a premature baby 23 years removed from the womb.
"It was the end of a lousy week," Collins said. "She was an angel. God puts people in your path at the right time, and we needed to meet her that night."
Over time, Neil's condition improved. The end-of-life conversations stopped. The health emergencies became less frequent.
Both parents returned to work — Beswick in construction, Collins in occupational therapy.
On Oct. 30, two months after he was originally due, Neil Beswick came home. He weighed 7 pounds, 10 ounces — more than six times his birth weight.
Today, Neil is still connected to breathing tubes that supply a diminishing amount of oxygen, Beswick said.
They don't know when the tube will come out, but they're not thinking about that.
At the Beswick and Collins household, life is lived one day at a time — albeit with a dreamy eye on their son's future.
"Whatever he wants to do, he'll be able to do," Beswick said, cracking a smile as Neil slept in his arms. "If he wants to join the football team, he can join the football team. If he wants to join the swim team, he can join."
"Or be a doctor," Collins said, "or a carpenter, or an occupational therapist."
November is Prematurity Awareness Month. To read more on premature births, visit the March of Dimes website at www.marchofdimes.org.