New CiCiAmong the first things you notice about 12-year-old Sylicia Gregory (CiCi) are her winning smile and her gracefulness, the result of classical dance training. She started dance at the age of 4 to continue developing her gross motor skills. She has studied ballet and jazz at the Center for Contemporary Arts (COCA) in University City since age 8. Among the things you don’t notice about CiCi are her hearing aid in one ear and her cochlear implant in the other—the only visible evidence of CiCi’s shaky start to life.

On January 6, 2002, Latisha Gregory, CiCi’s mom, had to undergo an emergency C-section due to a pulmonary edema which caused her lungs to fill with fluid. Although it was more than three months until her due date, CiCi seemed to be fine when she was born. But because of her early arrival, she was whisked from the delivery room at Barnes-Jewish Hospital to the Children’s Hospital newborn intensive care unit (NICU). “She came into the world crying and did well that first day, but things went downhill from there,” Latisha remembers.

The next few months were harrowing for the Gregorys, as the NICU staff brought CiCi through several setbacks. They even refer to one night in that January as “chapel night,” because that’s where Latisha and her husband Montoya stayed. “I remember it was January 21, my birthday, and I did not want to lose my baby on my birthday,” Latisha says.

With the help of Dr. Karen Wickline, pediatric neonatologist, and the expert team of residents, fellows and nurses in the NICU, CiCi slowly gained strength. She went home on April 6, her actual due date, still tethered to an oxygen machine and wearing an outfit from Build-a-Bear Workshop because she was too tiny for infant clothes. She was diagnosed with hearing loss at 22 months old and entered the Moog Center for Deaf Education, in west St. Louis County, where she attended for six years and learned to speak.

Dr. Wickline, who followed CiCi through the next three years of her life, still sees her once-tiny patient regularly, but not in the clinic. Dr. Wickline also takes ballet lessons at COCA. “Seeing what she can do now after seeing her go through so much as an infant is absolutely wonderful,” Dr. Wickline says. “The trajectory of her life points skyward.”

Indeed, CiCi is bound for greatness if this summer’s experience is any indication. She tried out and earned a place at the ballet barre of the Dance Theatre of Harlem Summer Intensive program. Its website calls the program “a challenging exploration of ballet and allied arts.” CiCi just calls it fun.

“Dancing makes me feel so free,” CiCi says.”I love the music. I love to move and be athletic. It’s just fun.”