A young boy who was born prematurely, weighing just under 2 pounds (0.9 kg) survived amid numerous health complications. Now he is a thriving teen and is his mother’s miracle.
Sam Kellam, 13, even became the inspiration for a book, “Sammie the Salmon,” written by his mother to help parents of premature babies, and the children themselves, hold on to the power of hope and faith.
Single mom Debra Cassell, of Salem, Virginia, has been a special-education teacher for 19 years. “Helping miracle children has always been my passion,” she told The Epoch Times via email.
Debra, 50, is a mother of two children: Sam and a daughter named Emily, 10, who was adopted from South Korea at 9 months old. However, Debra’s journey into motherhood was a struggle.
Trying to get pregnant at the age of 32, Debra suffered multiple early miscarriages. After invasive, painful fertility treatments, she finally fell pregnant with twins, remembering it as “the happiest time of my life.” The expectant parents were excited to welcome their newborns.
Debra described her pregnancy as a perfect period, however, one night she developed severe pain on the right side of her body. After being immediately rushed to the hospital the then-expectant mother was diagnosed with HELLP syndrome, a disorder of the liver and blood that can be fatal if left untreated. Debra had to have an emergency caesarean section at 26 weeks as doctors were unsure if she would survive.
Baby Sam and his sister Alison were born on June 14, 2007. Sam weighed a mere 1 pound 13 ounces (approx. 0.82 kilograms) and his sister weighed a little more than him. Sam was whisked to the NICU and spent the first three months of his life there, whilst, tragically, Sam’s twin sister passed away from necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) after 11 days.
“We decorated the nursery green and pink. One side was for her and the other was for Sam,” Debra recalled. “After she passed, I couldn’t even go into the room. My family took all the girl things away and redecorated before I got home from the hospital.”
Heartbroken Debra, with the support of her then-husband, channeled her strength into supporting Sam, who was still fighting for his life.
Through an individualized family service plan (IFSP), Sam had occupational and physical therapy from birth and briefly wore a helmet to reshape his skull. He was later diagnosed with ADHD, sensory integration disorder, speech delays, fine motor delays, and a learning disability in math.
Two years after Sam’s birth, Debra adopted a little girl from South Korea, named Emily. “She’s our second miracle!” Debra explains.
As Sam grew older, the school he went to made accommodations for his needs, allowing him to use the elevator, designated extra time between classes, and even had adaptive sports.
While his sensory needs were strenuous, Debra knew how to help her son at home, owing to her training in special education.
Debra was raised on a farm in West Virginia, where her mother and police chief father fostered children with disabilities, adopting two children with cerebral palsy. Debra recalls her late adopted brother being bullied for his physical differences, but remembers him as a “very smart and wonderful person.”
“I became a special education teacher to help children like my brother feel good about themselves,” she claimed.
Sadly, Sam was also bullied from an early age. After a series of unsuccessful daycare placements, Debra, who had returned to work, secured her son a spot in a preschool class within her own school system.
Later, as a 5th-grader and pre-teen, Sam began to complain of pain in his feet. Sam’s full-body X-ray showed that his upper spine wasn’t fused together properly due to his preterm birth. Then, after months of tests that followed, Sam was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis.
In 6th grade, the bullying resumed—at Sam’s school bus. “He said they were making fun of him because of the way he walked and talked,” Debra recalled. “To see him cry because kids were picking on him was terrible. It brought back all the memories of my brother.”
Debra then took him off the bus and began to drive him to and fro.
Debra also had another incredible tool in her arsenal for helping boost Sam’s self-esteem: a story she had written during his time at daycare. “The words for the book just flowed out of me one stressful day when I was so scared to leave him,” she recalled.
Ten years later, “Sammie the Salmon” became a book. The story chronicles a baby salmon born early, forced to endure many of the same experiences that a preemie baby would go through, before growing up to be big and strong.
“It’s a tribute to Sam and the fighter in him,” Debra told The Epoch Times. “My hope is to give encouragement and inspiration to other families through Sam’s story of love. To be able to share our experience in a positive way is a blessing from God.”
Sam turned 13 on June 14, 2020. He is doing “amazingly well” and is “a tough little ray of light,” said his mother.
Sam, who can struggle to make friends, shares a close bond with his sister Emily, despite the typical brother-sister squabbles. He only learned that he once had a twin at the age of 13, when Debra finally felt he was old enough to understand.
“He had a lot of questions,” she said, “but he took it well.”
Today, a happy, humorous Sam, who is a history fan, loves gaming, fishing, swimming, and playing golf.
“Seeing his confidence grow is very rewarding,” said Debra. “Good things can happen and our awesome Sam is proof of that! Always believe in miracles!”