Tiny patients, giant thanks

For preemies' parents, reunion with hospital staffers renews gratitude for help in those early, anxious days

October 12, 2005|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

One of the hardest things about having a premature baby is going home from the hospital without the newest member of the family.

Dylan O'Shea had to stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Howard County General Hospital for six weeks after he was born seven weeks early, weighing 4 pounds and 3 ounces. His parents, Christine and Kevin O'Shea of Ellicott City, stayed at the hospital as often as possible.

"We always felt bad leaving him," said Christine O'Shea. But the NICU staff told the parents not to feel bad, that it was important for them to take breaks. Go home, they'd say. Dylan is in good hands.

"Just having them reach out like that, it was a small gesture, but it meant a lot," said Kevin O'Shea, who was holding Dylan, now 4 months old, on the table in front of him. "To say that I'll be forever grateful is an understatement."

The O'Sheas, including big brother Riley, who is 3, were among an estimated 800 people attending the hospital's annual NICU reunion at Martin's West on Sunday afternoon.

Some families have been attending since the reunions started 15 years ago, said Mary Patton, director of public relations for the hospital. Each year, a stuffed animal is given away to all the children born in the NICU. This year, it was a soft lion wearing an orange Howard County General Hospital T-shirt. Some kids, she said, have collections of animals from each year.

Tyler Yobbagy of Elkridge now has his ninth stuffed animal. He has attended the reunion every year since he was born three months early, weighing 1 pound, 12 ounces, said his mother, Stephanie. "We see a lot of old faces and a lot of new ones," she said.

Kid food deluxe

The gathering is one of the more unusual events at Martin's West, known for its lavish weddings and other parties. On Sunday, servers wearing white gloves carried pizzas on platters, and silver chafing dishes held chicken nuggets. Enormous balloons in the shapes of animals served as centerpieces for the green-clothed round tables.

Maryland Public Television's Bob the Vid Tech - a celebrity to any young fan of Dragon Tales or Clifford The Big Red Dog - was master of ceremonies at an event that also featured face-painting and a puppet show.

Many of those present said they simply liked to see the doctors and nurses who had helped them through those early, difficult days, and to show off their healthy children, who now seemed so big compared to their Beanie Baby-size early days.

Twins were common. Eden and Jandy Wingrove, 8 months old, were playing with their stuffed lions, Jandy in her carrier and Eden on the lap of her mother, Lora Wingrove of Halethorpe. "We're hoping to see some of the nurses who took care of them," Lora said.

When the NICU was established in 1990, it had room for six bassinets, said Paul Gleichauf, senior vice president of planning for the hospital. It was expanded to 10, then 18, and three years ago was moved from the hospital basement to the second floor, next to the delivery rooms.

"By the time we left the basement, it was licensed for 18, but we couldn't fit them," Gleichauf said. The second-floor unit still is licensed for 18 bassinets, he said, but is large enough accommodate 25.

`Family-oriented'

The improved NICU has a cozier feel so that families can feel comfortable spending long periods of time there, said Dr. Tuvia Blechman, who started the unit in 1990. "We created a unit that was very family-oriented," he said.

The NICU at Howard County General combines a homey setting with sophisticated technology, he said.

Survival rates for tiny babies have improved since the NICU was founded, Blechman said. Babies born at 23 weeks are considered viable, with about a 20 percent survival rate, he said. At 24 weeks, the chances are 50-50, and at 25 weeks, the survival rate is 80 percent, Blechman said.

Rebecca Harrity of Sykesville has seen both NICU locations. Three years ago, her daughter, Laura, was born six weeks early and weighed 2 1/2 pounds. Her son Edward, who just turned 1, was also six weeks early. Both spent time at the NICU.

"There's so much more room now," she said. "Before it was kind of crowded." She said she liked seeing the NICU on the same floor as the delivery rooms.

Remembering those scary first days with her daughter and with her son, Harrity said the "hardest part of it was leaving them at the hospital. When you have a baby, you always think you're going to take them home with you."

The staff at Howard County made it easier for her to take the occasional breather.

"Everybody was so helpful and so caring," Harrity said. "You could tell it was a loving atmosphere. You feel bad leaving them there, but knowing you have such caring people there makes you a little less anxious."

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