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Racing for the tiniest babies

A man, woman and child pose for a photo holding a racing helmet
“I owe my life to Sunnybrook,” says professional race car driver Devlin DeFrancesco, who launched an exciting campaign to give back to the DAN Women & Babies Program.

Devlin DeFrancesco says he was born fast.

Now a professional race car driver in the IndyCar Series, the 22-year-old sped into the world 15 weeks premature and weighing less than one pound. He spent his first four months clinging to life in an incubator at Sunnybrook, cared for by the dedicated specialists at Sunnybrook.

If I wasn’t at Sunnybrook, I probably wouldn’t have survived,” says Devlin. “My family and I will be eternally grateful for Sunnybrook’s care because nothing that followed would have been possible without them.”

To say thank you for the life-saving care and raise funds and awareness for Sunnybrook’s DAN Women & Babies Program, Devlin and his family launched the Racing for the Tiniest Babies campaign. The DeFrancesco Family generously committed to match all donations up to $250,000. The gifts will support the program’s highest priority needs, helping Sunnybrook’s tiniest and most vulnerable patients survive – and thrive – while also providing personalized care for women with high-risk pregnancies.

Family-centred approach

Approximately 4,000 babies a year are born at Sunnybrook’s DAN Women & Babies Program. More than a quarter are high-risk deliveries. Each year, the team in Sunnybrook’s highly specialized Newton Glassman Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) cares for 600 premature and sick babies, including 70 “micro-preemies” who, like Devlin, weigh less than 3 pounds.

Sunnybrook is widely recognized for its family-centered approach to preemie care that includes private rooms, 24-hour access for parents and its pioneering work in “kangaroo care” – holding the baby skin-against-skin – even amid the intricate tubes and wires.

“We prioritize this because it promotes brain growth and better overall outcomes,” explains Dr. Eugene Ng, the Chief of Newborn and Developmental Paediatrics.

Team Sunnybrook also understands that the need for follow-up care continues after a baby goes home with their family. “NICU Graduates” receive regular assessments from a wide range of experts – including developmental neonatologists, occupational therapists, nurses, speech language pathologists and physiotherapists – in the DeFrancesco Neonatal Follow-Up Clinic.

Three people stand side by side smiling
Devlin reunited with his NICU care team, Dr. Elizabeth Asztalos & primary nurse, Faith Sprengel.

A turning point

A pioneer of the DeFrancesco Neonatal Follow-Up Clinic, Sunnybrook neonatologist Dr. Elizabeth Asztalos remembers the life-or-death decision that proved a turning point in Devlin’s care two decades ago. When Devlin experienced respiratory distress, she deflated his right lung in order to give his heart the space it needed to work harder.

From that moment on, it felt like Devlin was destined for life on the fast track,” says Dr. Asztalos. Years later, during his follow-up assessments, Devlin was always running around the clinic. “We joked that he was the ‘wildest kid in the wing,’” she laughs. “It seemed a race car was the only thing that could contain him.”

Fast forward to July 2022 where Devlin returned to Toronto with his racing team, Andretti Steinbrenner Sport, for his home debut at the 2022 Honda Indy Toronto. Devlin recorded the best-ever qualifying performance to date in his rookie season at his hometown race, before family and close friends who were cheering him on.

Devlin proudly featured Sunnybrook’s name on his No. 29 racing car, helmet and suit. A closer look at his helmet and suit reveals drawings from NICU Graduates as well as the words, “Thank you Sunnybrook!” and “Fight like a Preemie!”

It’s a fitting tribute for Devlin who says: “I will always support Sunnybrook – I owe my life to this great team.”

Watch as professional race car driver Devlin Defrancesco shares why he's giving back to Sunnybrook