The toddler pressed his face against the glass door at 7:01am, hoping someone would let him out.
Tripp had 29 minutes left to be free from the breathing tubes he’s been connected to since he was born most prematurely 2.5 years ago. Free from the crib he stays in most of the day. Free from inside. He just wanted to be in the the grass.
His mother, Amie Kiehn, walked up behind and opened the storm door. She had a deadline of her own this morning.
Amie’s the human face behind one of the most well-known media brands around — she manages the Carolina Panthers’ social media accounts. On this Thursday morning that meant an 8am post to unveil renderings of what Bank of America Stadium will look like when it’s renovated for Major League Soccer. The post would be big news in a city that likes visions of the future, and people would share and argue over what looked good and what didn’t.
But for now, for this half-hour, for Amie, it’s all about Tripp.
Why it matters: The Panthers’ digital channels produce nearly 1 billion impressions a year — 958.4 million in 2020, to be exact — from people liking a simple “praised hands” tweet to watching well-produced videos. But very few of those people know who’s managing the team behind popular accounts. And fewer know the story about her son.
Amie has bounced between being the 24/7 Wizard of the Panthers’ online Oz and being a 24/7 mother to her miracle child since she gave birth to Tripp in an emergency C-section the night before the season opener against the Cowboys in 2018.
The numbers that weekend: the Panthers won 16-8; Tripp came into the world at 1 pound, 3 ounces.
His lungs couldn’t support him. His heart would struggle. There were times over the next few months when doctors prepared Amie for the worst. And there were times during those times when the Panthers’ fans would be hollering about a losing streak.
To her even the loudest complaints provided a sort of balance. When you’re in a hospital holding a child who’s the size of a zucchini, it’s entertaining to see what people get mad about online.
Tripp stayed in the hospital for a year — “368 days, but who was counting,” Amie says — before coming home. Even then he needed to be hooked up to the tracheostomy tube and food tube. He’s learned to talk through a sign language he’s made up himself. And he’s learned to help everybody cope by simply flashing his memorable smile.
In late March of this year, finally, his doctors said he could have three stretches of 30 minutes a day off the machine. The kid tries to make the most of every second.
“OK, you gotta look down,” Amie said as he walked down the steps that Thursday two weeks ago.
Down one step, then the next, headed toward me in the yard. Tripp is 22 pounds now. My son, who’s a year-and-a-half younger than Tripp, is about the same weight.
One funny thing about kids is that they can show you your bad habits just by being themselves. Here was Tripp, all heart, barreling out the front door, about to fall on his face because he couldn’t bother to look down, what with all there is to see when you look up — the birds and the squirrels and the new guy (me), all of it.
There’s so much out here, he seemed to want to tell us, who has the time for watching your step?
We must look strange to him, his mother and I and all the rest of us, our necks always tilted down toward screens.
“Where are you off to?” Amie said. He wobbled toward me, as if to say to me, Hey man it’s your turn to give my mom a break, and we walked around the yard for a few minutes in a circle while the robins and cardinals tweeted.
The summer of 2018 was full of promise in the Panthers’ front office.
New owner David Tepper was making changes. Cam Newton was finally entering a season healthy. And Amie was pregnant, set to deliver in early December.
While many parents wait to pick a name, Amie and her fiancé, James, knew that their boy would be third in a line of Jameses and that he’d be called Tripp. (Amie and James decided that James would stay in the background on this story. They’ve been mostly private about Tripp’s life until these interviews.)
That summer Amie and James put sample paint squares on the walls of their north Charlotte home, figuring they’d give the place a fresh look for the newborn. The squares are still in the same spots today, capsules to a time when they were free to concern themselves with things like paint.
In early August that year, her doctor had given her the “everything looks great” blessing at 22 weeks. She started making plans in her mind to take maternity pictures before the football season. But in early September she noticed her belly hadn’t “popped” like with other women she’d seen.
The doctor did a quick ultrasound and saw that her baby was still the size he was in August, 22 weeks. They rushed her to a high-risk doctor, who discovered that her umbilical cord developed a kink weeks earlier, and that he wasn’t getting the proper nutrients.
It was time to deliver to try to save the child’s life, the doctor told her.
“But we have the Cowboys this weekend,” she remembers thinking.
They scheduled the delivery for Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, the day before the opener. Amie requested a 6:30pm appointment because she had something important to post that morning.
Let’s stop there and think about how we rank things in importance. This is the modern struggle, isn’t it — determining what’s important and what isn’t, what’s worth your time and attention and what’s ultimately inconsequential.
Panthers fans for years had clamored for the team to remove the generic NFL shield at midfield and replace it with a Panthers’ logo. Tepper said he’d give them that wish, and that Friday before the season began the grounds crew went to work.
People working in skyscrapers could see the field from above and started posting photos.
Yes the important news of the day Tripp was born, when you get right down to it, was some paint on some grass.
Amie and her team — she manages three people across the Panthers content teams — had worked on a video to unveil the logo, with soaring shots of the stadium and skyline, and a hype-everybody-up script.
The final edits came back from the production company at 1:20am. She gave her approval, then woke up early that morning, and at 8am sharp hit send across all platforms her last big tweet before Tripp. You may remember it: “The wait is over.”
People responding said they were in tears, speechless, and ready. And Amie went in to deliver Tripp.
Like most premature babies, when Tripp debuted, his lungs were the biggest concern. Doctors immediately took him to the NICU with a condition called bronchopulmonary dysplasia, or BPD.
Her coworkers and bosses told her to take the time she needed. Amie decided to keep working. She figured that while they were in the hospital, doctors would care for Tripp, so she’d save her maternity leave for when he came home. She didn’t know it would take a year — those 368 days — for that to happen.
That Sunday, 18 hours after the C-section, the Panthers kicked off against the Cowboys. And despite her bosses’ insistence that she take the time to herself, Amie was on Slack, watching her social media team post live updates.
She’d want me to write here that her colleagues and teammates throughout the organization are the reason she made it through from a work standpoint. One of Amie’s biggest counselors was Greg Olsen. The now-retired tight end had his own frightening experience with a newborn when his son, T.J., was born with a congenital heart defect in 2012. T.J. is healthy today, but Olsen’s work to help other kids with the same condition is well-known throughout Charlotte.
Also well-known is that the Panthers have one of the top media teams in Charlotte. And on social media, they’re sharp and witty, but sweet and welcoming. They’re consistently ranked among best in class in the NFL.
When Cam Newton showed up to the stadium that morning in a sort of robe/jumpsuit thing that had everyone talking, Amie’s team channeled her wit and summed it up in six words, “Don’t hate on the pajama drip.”
That online energy is what the world saw out of the Panthers on social that day, and few would’ve known that behind the curtain their captain was in a hospital bed with her son in NICU.
Amie didn’t set out to be a social guru.
She was a sports writer at the University of Iowa, in her home state. She wanted to work in Hollywood, so she moved there for a short stretch in 2009. One thing led to another — she’s very personable — and she wound up working for Ashton Kutcher’s production company as an intern in the summer of 2009. (She says he’s one of the nicest people she’s ever met, for what it’s worth.)
The job was fun, but after graduation she joined AmeriCorps and Teach for America, and became a middle school language arts teacher.
Her peers selected her to be Teach for America’s graduation speaker in 2013, but still she found herself wanting something else. She took a job at a sports marketing company in Charlotte. Through that work she connected with the Panthers’ media team. And that, in time, led to a job. (Amie and James moved out west for a minute; there’s a whole story behind that, but it’s for another time.)
In the early 20th century, mainstream medicine actually referred to premature babies as “weaklings.” This would be the last descriptor you’d use for Tripp.
In any case, preemies were, and still are, very expensive to keep alive. In the 1930s some hospitals and doctors set up incubator exhibits, according to Smithsonian magazine. Yes, they’d put the babies in incubators and invite the public to pay 25 cents to view them in places like Coney Island and at fairs, and that money would help the parents pay for the medical care.
Things have, well, advanced some since then.
But one thing that’s constant is the fear and anxiety, and the shock of seeing your child that size for the first time.
Another thing that’s held true is that each child is different.
Tripp’s longtime doctor, Dr. Eugene Daugherty, director of the pediatric intensive care unit at Novant Health, says Tripp was notable for many reasons. His smile. His parents. The fact that NFL football players sometimes sent well-wishes. But most of all, he was chronically sick.
“All preemies are sick,” Daugherty told me. “But in my 21 years of pediatric critical care, Tripp is one of three kids who was extremely chronically ill. To the point where you don’t know … where something bad could happen one day and Tripp could die.”
Daugherty and other doctors had those conversations with Amie and James regularly. Sometimes Amie would break down, Daugherty remembers. But most times she just wanted the information, plain and simple. Knowing the facts helped her more than false hope for sunshine on rainy days.
Meanwhile, the Panthers’ social accounts were getting peppered with questions about what was wrong with the team. They’d started that season 6-2 but then lost seven in a row. Fans vented online, of course.
Amie never saw the posts as trivial, though. This is one of many gifts she possesses: Her default is to meet people right at their emotional place, rather than spilling hers on them.
She has that approach with commenters, doctors, family, friends and Tripp. Maybe it’s the former teacher in her, or maybe it’s the midwestern upbringing, or maybe it’s just the years online, but she’s got some Mr. Rogers qualities about her.
And as much as modern medicine, that trait is part of what helped Tripp survive. When premature babies thrive, Dr. Daugherty told me, it’s often because of their connection to their parents.
“The thing I remember most is that even when he’s sick, he’s got this smile that goes ear to ear. He was a happy kid,” Daugherty told me. “And part of that is Amie. She just has this alive personality.”
Or, as Amie puts it: “Tripp is a miracle. He’s a very expensive miracle, but he’s a miracle. And he’s a product of incredible doctors and James and myself, who had a serious devotion to not saying no. We have truly loved Tripp so much that I think it helped his perseverance.”
“OK, Google, how much time is left on the timer?” Amie said when we went back in their living room that Thursday morning, and the machine responded, “11 minutes and 42 seconds.”
“OK, 11 minutes left, Trippy.”
They spent most of that time going back and forth between outside and inside (kids love opening and closing doors, you may know) until the Google machine beeped at 7:30 to let them know it’s time to hook up again. Amie turned on “Sesame Street.”
Tripp sat on the couch while she connected him at the trach. He motioned to me with his hands.
“That means come sit with him and watch,” Amie said.
He’s made up his own language.
The typical sign for “I love you” is two fingers and a thumb, for instance, but Tripp can’t get his hand to work like that, so he just pretends to give you a hug. And if he wants something more to eat, he’ll just put his fist in his mouth. He’s direct like that.
We sat there for a few minutes on the couch with “Sesame Street,” surrounded by machines and cubbies for all his belongings: puzzles and brain toys, big toys, sensory and therapy supplies, balls and blocks, music toys.
Tripp spends much of his day in a crib that’s in the living room, in between those three 30-minute stretches where he’s free. Amie and James work from home in the back rooms while a day nurse watches him. They kept the crib in the main room because they wanted to make sure he was incorporated into the flow of their lives. When they come out to make a sandwich for lunch, he sees them. And just as important, they see him.
At 7:50am, Amie told me she really needed to prep that post about the stadium renderings, so we started to say goodbyes. But Tripp had one more trick to show me.
“Can you show him jacuzzi boy?” she told him.
His nurse laughed, “Yeah, where’s jacuzzi boy?”
Tripp looked up at his mom and smiled, then right toward his nurse and smiled, then paused for dramatic effect like a true showman. Then he tossed his arms back on the crib railing and flung his head up like he was leaning against the edge of a whirlpool.
Watching it I laughed and thought of what adults could learn from him, this boy who can’t breathe on his own, nurtured through tubes and sheer love from his parents, just sitting there all laid back in a crib, convincing himself it’s just another day at the spa, this little 22-pound superhero, Jacuzzi Boy.