From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Born months early and no longer than a dollar bill, these "micro preemies" from Minnesota faced terrible odds. But with their parents' support—and the dedication of one doctor—they discovered they could do anything they set their sights on

APRIL PALO
Born at 23 weeks; 1 lb. 8 oz.

CHARLIE DEBECK
Born at 25 weeks; 1 lb. 13 oz.

ALICIA SHUMAN
Born at 24½ weeks; 1 lb. 13 oz.

JONATHAN ENGHOLM
Born at 26 weeks; 2 lbs. 2 oz.

KATIE KENEFICK
Born at 25 weeks; 1 lb. 14 oz.

CHRIS CREMONS
Born at 24 weeks; 1 lb. 4 oz.

THE MAN BEHIND THE MICRO BABIES

At Children's Hospital of Minnesota-Minneapolis in the late 1980s, a baby born before 26 weeks had about a 50 percent shot at survival, compared to nearly a 90 percent chance today. Those who lived, the conventional wisdom went, faced a grim future of physical and mental problems. Not so, says Dr. Ronald Hoekstra, a neonatologist who has devoted his life to micro preemies. In a study to be released this summer, Hoekstra found that of 146 surviving preemies born from 1986 to 1989, most proved remarkably resilient. Despite problems ranging from poor vision to cerebral palsy (about 10 in the group), nearly 90 percent finished high school and about 60 percent have gone on to college. Key to their success: Early intervention and parental support and follow-up. "If you hang in there," says Hoekstra, 66, "a lot of these children will surprise you."

BIG MAN ON CAMPUS

JONATHAN ENGHOLM, 18

My lungs were underdeveloped when I was born and I was on life support from the start. When I was in kindergarten, I used to wake up in the middle of the night and have a hard time breathing. My parents would get the steam going in the shower and that would open my airways. I was not very coordinated when I was younger. My mom and dad pushed me into sports and I hated it. But they kept pushing to see what I'd like. I started playing T-ball, baseball, basketball. After a few years I started really liking sports, and it took off from there. I started lifting in eighth grade to put on mass; now I'm 6 ft. 215 lbs. I'm an inside linebacker on the varsity football team at St. John's University. I know I was very close to not making it or having serious health issues. I try to keep in mind that there are other people who aren't as fortunate in health to be able to play a great sport like football—that alone motivates me to play as hard as I can every time I step on the field.

A 'SHORT' KID WITH A WILL TO SUCCEED

CHARLIE DEBECK, 21

Growing up, I had a speech impediment. I had trouble pronouncing Rs and Ls. My mother got me speech therapy and really advocated for me. She also spent countless nights teaching me to read. When kids made fun of me for being short (I'm now 5'10½"), she would remind me it wasn't my fault and I was by no means less because of it. She also told me that it's better to remember how we've been blessed in life than to focus on the negatives. When I was born my parents were told I had a 5 percent chance of survival. I also had a breathing problem—my mom says she woke me up like 20 times within the first 24 hours of my returning home. It was very close, but I managed to make it. I feel like I've been given a rare opportunity, and I feel a distinct drive to accomplish something. I scored an 800 on my math SATs, and I'd like to become a senator. My mom always taught me things happen for a reason, so I plan on doing what good I can in the time I've got. There would be nothing worse than surviving and not doing anything good for the world.

GRATEFUL & GIVING BACK

KATIE KENEFICK, 20

When I see pictures of premature babies with problems I think about how blessed I was that I dodged every bullet. When I was in fifth grade I couldn't read the board, so I had to get glasses. I didn't like them but then I remembered I could have been blind, so I shouldn't complain. When I was born I had blood transfusions. I started donating blood when I was 17; now I try to donate every two months. I just got back from a service trip to Guatemala, and I've done three trips to Mexico. I know God has a plan for my life—otherwise, he wouldn't have kept me around.

A DISABILITY & TWICE THE EFFORT

CHRIS CREMONS, 22

I've had to work harder at everything. When I was born I had a condition that caused my retinas to detach. My doctor was able to do surgery on my right eye; I am blind in my left. When I was younger it took me longer to read, so I put in extra time. I was an honors student in high school and now, at St. Olaf College, I'm on the dean's list. Running is no exception. I'm not the fastest runner, but I've built up the endurance to succeed in longer races. I've run 5Ks, 10Ks and a half marathon. Persistence is part of who I am.

A FIGHTING SPIRIT

ALICIA SHUMAN, 19

When I was in second grade I'd do "About Me" projects—I'd bring in my little baby diapers and clothes because no one knew how small I was. Now I'm a competitive figure skater and cheerleader at St. Cloud State University. I feel it's quite an accomplishment. I want to tell parents, "Keep your hopes up. Yes, your baby is small, but don't ever give up. I turned out just fine."

TOP OF HER CLASS

APRIL PALO, 20

When I was born doctors were sure I wouldn't make it. So my grandfather, a Lutheran minister, baptized me in the NICU. They told my parents I'd have learning delays. But I hit the ground running intellectually around 2 years old, and today my academics are one of my proudest accomplishments. At Hamline University I have a 4.0 GPA. When you are premature people have all these conceptions about how you'll turn out. But you can be whatever you want.