Daniel Rubin: Photos document triumphs for premature babies

Sam Muscatello , born four months premature, in his first photo at Abington Memorial. ROBIN TRAUTMANN
Sam Muscatello , born four months premature, in his first photo at Abington Memorial. ROBIN TRAUTMANN
Posted: November 01, 2012

Sam Muscatello arrived four months early, weighing a pound and a half, tiny enough to fit in the hand of his mother, Ann Marie.

If only she could hold him. It would be two weeks before the doctors at Abington Memorial Hospital would let her take him out of his Isolette. Ann Marie was a mess.

The last thing she wanted that second morning of his fragile life was a baby picture.

"I don't like pictures on a good day," Ann Marie said. "And this was not a good day."

She was being wheeled by a college friend to the Special Care Nursery when she ran into Robin Trautmann, a portrait photographer who volunteers at Abington.

"You're so disillusioned by everything that's happened at that point," Ann Marie went on. "You've had this tiny, tiny baby. I was in total ignorance about prematurity."

Trautmann had grown up in Bryn Athyn with Ann Marie's friend. Through the friend, Trautmann persisted. She knew from her experience with her premature niece that Ann Marie could be in for a long haul, and that good photos bring normalcy to a tremulous time.

"She was such a gentle soul," Ann Marie said.

That encounter, six years ago, was really when Trautmann's work changed as well. She was 39, a mother of three, who'd taught phys ed and coached volleyball at her alma mater, the Academy of the New Church. Portraits were a family tradition.

Every year, from 1950 to 1985, her dad created an album for her and her six siblings, shot with his trusty Rolleicord. She had no more training than an online course and a class at Temple University's Ambler campus when she started her new career, but she had her father's eye.

Business by 2006 was good enough that she felt the need to give something back. When she ran into Ann Marie, Trautmann was at Abington taking a bereavement photo - she'd been volunteering with various programs for gravely ill children. She yearned for something more hopeful.

Sam Muscatello barely fit the bill. After a couple of weeks that his mother calls "the honeymoon," his health declined - so much that there were days, when she'd be sitting in the room and doctors would be bellowing air into his tiny lungs with a bag, that she expected they'd turn around and tell her there was nothing more they could do.

Several times Trautmann arrived to hear that now was not a good time. She was able to photograph the boy at three weeks, five weeks, and eight weeks, taking portraits of mother and baby, and documenting the environment, tubes and all.

"She always made me feel comfortable," Ann Marie said. "What was important to her was to give these pictures of a memory."

Trautmann created a photo album of Sam. She does this for all of her subjects now - premature children born at Abington. "Most families can have their baby pictures taken at Sears at three or six months," she said. "My poor little niece was behind the bars of CHOP's cribs."

But Ann Marie, who is 42 and a single mom who helps run her family's die-supply company, said it took her almost a year before she could look at the pictures without shuddering.

"It was too much to go back. After what we went through for 99 days in the hospital, trying to be at work, trying to be at the hospital. I'd show these pictures to others, and I'd see the look of horror on their faces. I'd go, 'No, no. He'd gained an ounce here. ...'

"They really show his smallness. But also his life."

Now she marvels at the photos, what Sam and she went through, what they survived. "He's full of life," she said, "a fantastic kid."

Every year Trautmann returns to photograph Sam, and document his progress. She refuses payment from all parents of preemies.

"These photos are our memory, our history," Ann Marie said. "They're probably the first thing I'd grab if I ever had to leave the house in a hurry."

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @danielrubin or Facebook at http://ph.ly/DanRubin.