Lewis men’s volleyball coach Dan Friend is entering his 13th season at the Romeoville, Illinois, school about 31 miles from Chicago. His record of 240-127 includes five MIVA tournament finals, one MIVA tournament title and a 2015 NCAA Division I-II national runner-up finish. Accordingly, Friend was the Volleyball magazine men’s coach of the year.
His wife, Lorelee Smith, is in the middle of her 10th season as the Flyers’ women’s head coach. Her record of 267-69 includes four Great Lake Valley Conference titles and two NCAA Division II regional final appearances. Her Lewis teams are 145-21 in GLVC play.
Smith gave birth to their daughter, Rae Analyn, June 5, but she was four months premature and weighed just 1 pound, 8 ounces. She’s doing great and this past Friday Lewis held a “Playing For Preemies” fundraising and awareness event that coincided with the school’s women’s volleyball match with McKendree.
The annual American Volleyball Coaches Association convention is the time of year where coaches from all over the country gather to network and share best practices.
It also happens to be the venue that spawned a marriage between two of the sport’s collegiate coaches. Back when the convention was in Dallas, Friend, then the head men’s and women’s coach at Newman University in Wichita, Kansas, met Smith. She was an assistant at Central Missouri State.
“This was right before I took the Lewis job,” Friend said. “We started dating and doing the long-distance thing and then got engaged. The following year the Lewis women’s job opened up.”
The couple has been married eight years.
This June, of course, their lives were turned upside down.
“I went in for my monthly ultrasound on a Tuesday and everything was good,” Smith recalled. “On Wednesday I didn’t feel good. I was struggling. I went to the hospital and I was going into labor.”
But Rae wasn’t due for another four months, 16 and a half weeks to be exact. To complicate matters further, Smith hadn’t reached the 24-week mark of her pregnancy — a key benchmark of sorts in the medical community in terms of viability of survival if premature birth occurs. A child born at that early stage is called a micro preemie.
“At 23.4 weeks old the odds of survival are 30 percent,” Friend explained. “If you make it 24 weeks the odds jump to 60 percent. That’s a pretty big thing if you can make it those extra three or four days.”
Thus, Smith needed to hold off giving birth as long as possible.
“I went in on a Wednesday and 24 weeks was Sunday,” she said.
Two rounds of magnesium injections (plus steroid injections during that time to help Rae’s growth) did the trick. Rae was born June 5.
“She came on Sunday,” Smith says. “I was so blessed and lucky the magnesium worked.”
Rae was born 1-pound, 8 ounces, and measured 12 inches.
“She fit around the palm of my hand,” Friend said.
But the delivery brought its own set of complications.
“When she went into labor that was the scariest part for me,” Friend said.
Smith explained that Rae’s umbilical cord became prolapsed. The doctor who discovered the situation had to ride on the cart with Smith into the operating room in order to keep things from getting worse.
Smith had to have an emergency C-section.
“Dan got left behind since it was an emergency,” Smith said. “Being left in the dark for a few hours was frightening for him.”
During delivery Rae’s arm was broken but that was not discovered until a day later when X-rays of where the PIC line (to make it easier to administer intravenous medicine) was located.
“Those 24 hours were probably the most scariest thing ever,” Friend said.
Rae remained in the Loyola University Medical Center (located just outside Chicago in the city of Maywood) Neonatal Intensive Care Unit until September 13.
“We watched her grow in a box in the NICU and then in a crib,” Smith said. “It was like you were visiting someone in the hospital.”
Rae ended up going home two weeks earlier than her regular due date.
“It’s a testament to Loyola’s NICU,” Smith said. “Rae could have had a ton of complications and she didn’t. They are really good there.”
Friend, used the word shocked to describe the initial days when it was evident Rae would be born prematurely, but added the couple was put at ease due to the outstanding care it received at Loyola.
“They start throwing stats and numbers at you,” he said. “I know they have to do that, but it becomes almost a morbid thing. They are talking about complications such as cerebral palsy and brain bleeds and her lungs not being developed.
“It becomes overwhelming really fast. While we were at Loyola during Rae’s stay we saw a lot of heartbreak and we saw a lot of joy with other people. She was there 105 days and every day we drove 45 minutes each way. It opened my eyes what Loyola NEQ did for us.
“We feel extremely blessed.”
Friend and Smith also had an additional scare related to a spit-up and chocking incident during a feeding that necessitated a 911 call and a short stay back at Loyola.
“Her stomach was still developing and there was a little bit of acid reflux and she was spitting up,” Friend said. “So we had to back there and they told us it’s not uncommon to have that in this situation.”
Smith added, “We went through that twice. We were scared and freaked out. Every time we would feed her we would get really nervous and worried that she would go into that choking thing or that she wasn’t breathing right.”
Today, Rae weighs 7 pounds, 6 ounces. Rae’s first name is a nod to the middle name of Smith’s father, while her middle name is in recognition of the middle names of both parents’ mothers.
“She’s at the weight of a smaller newborn right now,” Smith said. “A big thing was waiting for her lungs to grow. They weren’t fully developed and she had a breathing tube for a while. She’s off that now and breathing on her own. We’re the happiest parents in the world.”
Smith, 40, and Friend, 41, say their ages played a big role in helping them get through the past few months.
“They place us into the mature parents category,” Smith said with a laugh.
“I’m not sure we could navigate what we went through if we were 25 or 26 years old,” Friend said.
Friend credits Smith’s assistant coach, Rudi Balich, for coming up with the idea of “Playing for Preemies.”
“We wanted to raise funds for premature babies,” Friend said. “We wanted to give back to Loyola for everything they did for us.”
All fans were encouraged to wear purple in recognition of Premature Birth Awareness. All ticket proceeds went directly to Loyola Medicine’s NICU. Lewis also sold T-shirts and both teams made donations. Lewis will ended up donating about $2,000 to Loyola through this effort.
Smith, whose team is ranked No. 19 in the country in the most recent AVCA Division II coaches poll, says she also was involved in a previous Playing for Preemies Night involving former St. Joseph (Indiana) head coach Jill Schopieray.
“She also had a preemie but not quite as premature as ours,” Smith said. “This one was bigger just because it involved Rae and it’s directly related to our program as opposed to joining in on another program.”
Looking back, both Friend and Smith are thankful for the outpouring of support Lewis University has given them over the past four months.
“Lewis has been great through the entire process from the administration to both teams and the coaching staffs,” he said.
“We’ve received so much support from the school and the volleyball community. I’d post some updates on Facebook and they would get 400-500 likes. The volleyball community is amazing. We look out for each other. We’re so blessed to be part of this community.”