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After Fight For Life And Media Firestorm, 'Distressed Baby' Is Happy Toddler

In an age of CEO gaffesand snafus, one in particular drew significant backlash last year.

At a town hall with employees, AOL Chief Executive Tim Armstrong explained his reasoning behind the cuts that had recently been made to the company's retirement benefits: He blamed rising costs linked with the Affordable Care Act — and, more specifically, he blamed the costs of covering two "distressed babies."

The comments prompted a controversy — which, in turn, prompted a decision days later to backtrack from the changes. But they also had many people wondering: What exactly is a "distressed baby"?

Deanna Fei found out when she was 25 weeks into what was expected to be an uncomplicated, low-risk pregnancy.

"And then," Fei says, "I woke up in pain, and by the time I got to the hospital, my daughter had to be delivered via emergency C-section."

Her daughter, Mila, was born weighing just 1 pound, 9 ounces. At the time, her husband worked at The Huffington Post, which is owned by AOL. Mila, now 2 years old, spent three months on life support; she was one of the two distressed babies Armstrong was referring to in his town hall comments.

Now, Fei has drawn on her experiences for a new memoir, Girl in Glass: How My "Distressed Baby" Defied the Odds, Shamed a CEO, and Taught Me the Essence of Love, Heartbreak, and Miracles.

"I had no idea that a baby could be born so prematurely," she tells NPR's Arun Rath. "During my first pregnancy, I treated the book What to Expect When You're Expecting like a Bible. I looked at every checklist: That was how I understood pregnancy and birth to happen."

To hear their full conversation, click the audio link above.

Interview Highlights

On her daughter's time in the neonatal intensive care unit

The first time I reached into her incubator, she held onto my hand. Her fingers were so tiny that they hardly felt like fingers, but they grasped my finger, and from that moment on, I could see, you know, she's fighting for her life, and the least that I can do as her mother is to be here with her.

On any given day I might feel, you know, that this is a good day — she gained an ounce, her oxygen levels are steady, her heart rate is steady — and then, three hours later, her lung had collapsed or her weight had plummeted. And, you know, I have to say there's nothing like having a child on life support for three months to give you perspective on what matters.

On realizing her daughter was in the news

Deanna Fei is also the author of the novel <em>A Thread of Sky</em>. Her essays have been published in <em>The New York Times </em>and <em>Slate</em>.
Peter S. Goodman / Courtesy of Bloomsbury USA
Courtesy of Bloomsbury USA
Deanna Fei is also the author of the novel A Thread of Sky. Her essays have been published in The New York Times and Slate.

It was actually the same week that she took her first steps. I was home with her. She was napping. The house was quiet, and suddenly I got these emails in my inbox from my husband, who at that time was an editor at The Huffington Post, which was owned by AOL. Earlier that morning, at a town hall meeting, Tim Armstrong cited two employees' distressed babies as two things that happened that had forced him to cut retirement savings for the whole

On the term "distressed babies"

He portrayed these children as outsize burden on the corporate balance sheets. Distressed babies: I've never heard of this term. It sounded to me like a business term reminiscent of distressed properties, distressed merchandise — in other words, damaged goods.

On responding to Armstrong's comments at the time

Tim Armstrong released a follow-up statement that said that he had actually meant to point out high-risk pregnancies as an example of how well the company takes care of its employees. Why would he assume that my daughter could only be the result of a high-risk pregnancy? The fundamental purpose of health insurance is to cover individuals in the event of a catastrophe. These risks are unforeseeable for any individual but completely predictable in the aggregate.

On Armstrong's apology

He offered a gracious apology. ... Still, overlooked in his apology were some really big questions that lingered: Why would the CEO be in the possession of such intimate details of employees and their families' medical conditions and expenditures? Why would he want to cite this at a public meeting to defend himself from his own cost-cutting?

On Mila herself

Mila is getting all the mileage she can get out of the terrible twos. She loves to sing. She loves to dance. She's very proud of everything that she accomplishes. She loves to scramble to the top of the jungle gym and say, "Momma, I did it!" And every day with her I consider a blessing.

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