Inspire 2023

Kapiolani Children's Miracle Network Champion: Small But Mighty

“Everyone at Kapiolani … made us feel like we weren’t just patients, we were family.”
Kevin Yee, Kalley-Mae’s Dad

When you meet 4-year-old Kalley-Mae, it’s difficult not to smile — that is, if you can keep up with her. The lively Hilo preschooler seems to jump, skip and run through life, tackling every task with zeal. She loves to draw and get her nails done, when she’s not getting down in the dirt playing T-ball. She may be one of the youngest and smallest on her Hilo team, but she bats like a big girl.

It should be no surprise. Kalley-Mae has been a fighter her entire young life.

A Challenging Beginning

In 2018, Cherilyn and Kevin Yee were expecting their new baby. It was an exciting time. The Yees had been trying to expand their family for years, persisting through several miscarriages. In December, they were enjoying the holiday season before the baby was due to arrive in the spring. Then, 10 days before Christmas, Cherilyn knew something was not quite right.

She was just 23 weeks and three days into her pregnancy when doctors medevaced her from Hilo to Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children. Her water bag was leaking and her baby was in a breech position. The baby would need to be delivered right away.

Kapiolani doctors performed an emergency C-section and little Kalley-Mae entered the world.

“We felt like we were on a rollercoaster,” Kevin said. “Our initial feelings of joy turned to fear when we realized that she may not survive.”

Kalley-Mae weighed just 1 pound, 6.6 ounces. She was just 11.81 inches long — less than the length of a ruler.

“I saw how small and fragile she was. But when we heard her cry for the first time, it gave us a glimmer of hope,” Cherilyn said. “We wanted to enjoy the moment as much as we could and, at the same time, not get our hopes up.”

The Yee family looks at an incubator.

Kevin and Cherilyn Yee show Kalley-Mae the type of special incubator that supported her for weeks after she was born.

That’s because Kalley-Mae’s medical journey would be long and challenging. The micropreemie was immediately placed in an incubator in Kapiolani’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). A ventilator helped her breathe and other specialized machines kept her tiny body alive.

“At 23 weeks, sometimes the baby’s organs are not developed enough to support life,” said Dr. Cherilyn Yee, a Kapiolani neonatologist who is not related to the Yee family. “Sometimes they’re so small that even our smallest breathing tubes can’t fit. Fortunately, we were able to find one that fit Kalley-Mae, and she responded well.”

“She had wires and tubes connected to almost every part of her,” mom Cherilyn said. “She was in an incubator that basically mimics a womb.”

For nine days, they couldn’t even touch their little girl. When they could, she was so fragile, Cherilyn and Kevin were afraid. NICU nurses showed them how to lightly place their hands on her so Kalley-Mae could feel their presence and hear their voices.

“She grabbed my finger and her hand wouldn’t even go all the way around the top of my nail,” Kevin said.

A Team Battle

Kalley-Mae’s oxygen levels were still low. When the staff increased her oxygen intake, it put pressure on the micropreemie’s heart and lungs. Eventually, doctors discovered a problem with her heart. Kalley-Mae needed open-heart surgery. She was only 46 days old.

“Premature infants often have difficulty tolerating the heart procedure, and Kalley-Mae got sick. She got very sick.” Dr. Yee said (in photo with Yee family, far left). “She developed pneumonia and there were times we thought she may not make it. But Kalley-Mae is strong and managed to pull through.”

Kalley-Mae with her family and Kapiolani team.During her 183-day stay in the NICU, the little girl endured a second round of pneumonia, 10 blood transfusions, and subsequent surgeries on her heart and eyes. Kapiolani physicians, nurses, specialists, therapists, pharmacists and the entire medical staff offered their expertise, compassion and support.

“She was feisty from day one,” said Lloyda Tamboa, a NICU nurse who spent those weeks with the Yees (in photo with Yee family, far right in green top). “Even when she could barely move a limb or open her eyes, you could tell she was a fighter. Kalley-Mae is proof that sometimes the teeniest, tiniest babies are the strongest.”

The care and compassion of the Kapiolani medical team and staff kept the Yees hopeful, even during the most difficult moments.

“Every day was a journey. Some days, all we could do was try to get from morning to lunchtime, then from lunch to dinner, one step at a time,” Kevin said. “Everyone at Kapiolani was amazing. They explained every step, were always compassionate and made us feel like we weren’t just patients, we were family.”

“The doctors and nurses always made to sure explain what was happening and supported us all along the way,” Cherilyn said. “They are incredible.”

Six months after the first frightening day that the Yees arrived at Kapiolani, Kalley-Mae and her parents were able to return home to Hilo. Kapiolani doctors, nurses, specialists and staff who were with them every difficult day lined up in the hallways to cheer as Cherilyn and Kevin walked out with Kalley-Mae in a stroller.

“She was the weight of a typical baby,” Kevin said. “Seeing the progression she went through was amazing.”

An Active Life

Today, the vibrant little girl who likes dolls and singing in the car fits right in with her friends. When she’s not dancing or jumping, she is playing as many sports as she can. She loves hitting the field with her T-ball team and, as Kalley-Mae puts it, “running really, really, really, really fast.”

She still works with therapists to ensure she grows up healthy and strong. Her parents say everyone calls her the miracle baby. So, in many ways, it is fitting that she is the Children’s Miracle Network 2023 Champion for Kapiolani.

Kalley-Mae playing T-ball.

Kalley-Mae practicing her T-ball skills with her dad, Kevin.

The Children’s Miracle Network provides specialized equipment to Kapiolani, including the special incubator where Kalley-Mae spent the first precious weeks of her life. The Yees credit community donors, who give gifts in all amounts, for saving their daughter. They hope sharing their story with partners and people across Hawaii will help give other children like Kalley-Mae a chance at a full life, through the lifesaving care at Kapiolani.

“I look at her every day and I can’t imagine my life without her,” Cherilyn said. “She is a bundle of joy. She is a firecracker. She keeps us on our toes. She is a true meaning of a champion.”