AUG 2018

Tiny baby survives with help of new medical discoveries

Amber Isabella Zepeda came into the world fighting for her life. She was born nearly four months early, and weighed just one pound, five ounces. All of her organs, including her heart, lungs, and liver, were only partially developed.

“It wasn’t that long ago that babies such as Amber would not have survived,” said Dr. Cynthia Blanco, medical director of the Neonatal Nutrition & Bone Institute at University Health and Chief of Neonatology at UT Health San Antonio.

But in University Hospital’s Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, a team of highly trained specialists and doctors, including Dr. Blanco, fought alongside Amber. They delivered complex treatments, performed multiple surgeries and provided access to the latest clinical trials only available in South Texas through University Health.

World renowned researchers at University Hospital’s NICU included Amber in two clinical trials that used advanced technologies and therapies that ultimately saved her life.

One placed Amber on a new device that helps babies breathe.

Another sought to provide Amber the nutrition she desperately needed because she wasn’t absorbing it through normal feeding and liver damage had developed. While University Hospital performs pediatric liver transplants, Amber was too small to be a candidate.

So, Dr. Blanco and a team of nutritionists, liver, lung and newborn specialists included her in a second study. They gave her intravenous feedings of a fish oil-based formula that was available in Europe, but not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States.

Dr. Blanco had a research permit to provide the fish oil to babies, like Amber, and she found it provided needed nutrition without harming the babies’ livers.


Level IV is the State of Texas’ highest designation for Neonatal Intensive Care Units. These NICUs meet a long-list of requirements to care for the most critically ill newborns.

Many babies in Level IV unit sare born prematurely and have underdeveloped organs. They may require life support. University Hospital meets this high standard of care by ensuring a team of wide range pediatric medical and surgical specialists are ready to respond. Specialists and therapists help infants struggling with breathing, eating and other developmental challenges.

Because of University Health’s partnership with research physicians at UT Health San Antonio, its Level IV NICU also offers babies facing the toughest challenges an opportunity to qualify for the latest, promising clinical trials.

Now, two years later, she’s a healthy, growing toddler whose story is giving hope to the parents of other struggling preemies.

“The therapies we’re testing today will probably be the standard of care in 10 years,” said Dr. Blanco.

“We have hope for a lot of babies because of stories like Amber’s.”