Sharing the care

Grateful families gather to remember and celebrate the hospital unit that specializes in treating babies who are clinging to life

October 17, 2007|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to The Sun

Tucking in her chin and softly laying her cheek on one shoulder, Susanne Gibbons closed her eyes and drew her arms to her chest like folded wings.

Mimicking an indelible image in her mind's eye, Gibbons was momentarily transported back to Sept. 13, 2001, when she gave birth to her daughter at Howard County General Hospital just six weeks past the midpoint of her pregnancy.

"Anna," she recalled, the tears welling in her eyes at the memory, "looked like a stunned little bird when she was born."

Weighing 1 pound, 9 ounces, the premature infant was whisked downstairs to the neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital within minutes of delivery. She was born 14 weeks early and couldn't breathe.

"She would stretch out her neck as she lay in the incubator, and her face would turn blue," Dr. Joseph Gibbons recalled of his daughter's constant struggle for air, despite being on 100 percent oxygen. "She had to be resuscitated dozens, maybe hundreds of times" in the first fragile hours of her life.

"I said, `She'll never make it out of here alive,'" said Susanne Gibbons, who had suffered throughout her pregnancy with constant bleeding and cervical pressure due to a low-lying placenta. "I wanted to take her off the ventilator. I just cried and cried."

Six years later, there was Anna, standing in the face-painting line at the hospital's 17th annual reunion for NICU graduates on Sunday, held for the first time at the Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville.

"She is incredible," said her mother, who has a doctorate in nursing and is a nurse practitioner. Though Anna has asthma and wears glasses to read and watch TV, she looks like any other 6-year-old. She is in kindergarten at Pointer's Run Elementary School and, like her peers, she is learning to read.

"Our family came here today to honor the nursing staff and Dr. Tuvia Blechman," her mother said. "God played a big part in all of this, but it was Tuvia who made the diagnosis. I told Anna to give him a hug and to thank him."

Anna's tiny body was still wracked with frequent episodes of asphyxia in the NICU at 6 weeks of age, and it was Blechman who felt certain there was something more than immature lung development to blame, Susanne Gibbons said. The hospital's chief of neonatology ordered a CAT scan and discovered a vascular ring encircling Anna's trachea that literally was squeezing the breath out of her. The infant was taken to Johns Hopkins Children's Center for surgery.

"Dr. Blechman saved Anna's life," her mother said. "I had wanted to disconnect the machines and let her go, but he said, `You've got a good baby. She has a good heart and good lungs -- don't give up on her.' His encouragement meant everything to us, and we can't begin to thank him for all that he did."

The Clarksville couple is among thousands who are members of an unofficial club that no parent wants to join -- all had babies who spent time in the hospital's NICU. And like the Gibbonses, 125 families had come to reunite with the staff members who had taken care of their infants.

Since it opened in 1990, the NICU has expanded to a Level III+ unit with 18 beds and has treated more than 5,400 patients, said Sharon Sopp, a hospital spokeswoman.

"It is encouraging to us to see these thriving children who literally are miracles," said Blechman, taking a break from greeting families. "When we last saw some of them, we weren't sure what their futures would hold."

While one in 10 babies delivered at hospitals nationwide become NICU patients, Blechman said, the majority of them are not preterm, but instead have pressing medical problems.

Now 17, Michael Hunter of Laurel was one of the hospital's first NICU patients. Though he was full-term and weighed 8 pounds, 10 ounces, "he was a very sick baby," said his mother, Vicki Powell. "He was the biggest thing in there, and they were wonderful to him."

Success story

Debbie O'Byrne, assistant principal at Mount View Middle School, briefly took the stage during the event to relate her daughter's journey from neonatal intensive care to second grade at Lisbon Elementary School.

Kaitlyn, 7, seemed healthy when she was born only four weeks early, but within 24 hours she had developed a blood clot in her aorta and was black and blue from the waist down, her mother said. To relieve hydrocephalus when she was 6 months old, surgeon Dr. Benjamin Carson implanted a permanent shunt in her skull, O'Byrne told the crowd.

"Now, she is above grade level in math and reading," said the Woodbine resident. "She's a shining ray of hope for all of you parents of little ones in the audience."

At nearly 6 months old, twin sisters Taylor and Jameson Butler of Baltimore were two of the youngest patients at the reunion.

While their father, James Butler, cradled a daughter in each arm, his wife, Amanda, praised the NICU staff. "They were all so awesome to us from the moment we walked in to the day we left. I cried when we said goodbye."

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