It wasn’t a birthday party. It wasn’t an anniversary. It was a graduation reunion. On September 17, family members and their once-premature babies reunited with the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) staff of Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center to celebrate the health of their children.
The reunion is a tradition that began 20 years ago, and was last held in 2011. Approximately 275 family members attended the reunion for their “graduate” children, along with a few dozen Kaiser staff, including doctors and nurses.
In a pregnancy, a woman can have preterm labor, which happens before 37 weeks of pregnancy have elapsed. Babies born at this early stage are called “premature.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, preterm birth is the greatest contributor to infant death, with most preterm-related deaths occurring among babies who were born very preterm—before 32 weeks. Preterm birth is also a leading cause of long-term neurological disabilities in children. Premature birth occurs in about 11 to 13 percent of pregnancies in the United States.
“We develop a significant relationship with the parents,” said Jessica Casher, a managing nurse for the neonatal unit. “Any mother and father who have a new baby—it’s a significant time of their life. Our job as nurses during this time is so significant, because we do not only have to care for these little babies, and do our best to ensure that they have the best chance, but we’re also supporting the families during this really difficult time. We really do not have just one patient, but, you know, we take care of the whole family.”
At the gates of the Dunsmuir House and Gardens, guests were met by a colorful children’s train. As the train came to a stop, children immediately jumped off it, running towards the lawn to join the other playing children who were surrounding a special frosty guest: Elsa, from the Disney movie Frozen.
As the children continued to run, laugh and get into small catfights, many mothers remembered the dark times that brought them to this happy day—the birth of a premature baby. “My son Elijah was born at 26 weeks and was at the NICU Kaiser for 95 days, about 3 months, and they saved his life. They saved both of our lives,” said Opal Taylor, a former patient from three years ago.
“I was having a dinner party at my house, and at the end of the dinner, somebody had spilled some wine at the table,” said Taylor, recalling the night her son was born. “We were having a blast, having a good time with a bunch of friends. As we gathered to clean up everything, I took off the tablecloth and took it downstairs to put it on the washer. As soon as I put it on the washer, I had a big release—like a big gush. I was wearing a summer dress, and I looked down and there was all this blood.”
Taylor had lost half her blood volume; she was only about 6 and a half months into her pregnancy.
When a premature infant is born, doctors will dry and warm the baby, and then check their heart rate, breathing, oxygen levels and movement. A tube may be placed to help the baby breathe. Some babies will receive a medicine called a pulmonary surfactant. This helps keep the lungs expanded, making it possible for the baby to breathe.
“He technically has chronic lung disease,” said Taylor, referring to Elijah, now 3, who was blowing bubbles with Casher on the lawn. “But it’s nothing. The boy is running, and the most he does is cough so much.”
The NICU team is composed of neonatologists (pediatricians with further training in the special care of newborns), pediatricians and neonatal nurse practitioners who specialize in providing care for hospitalized infants. The inpatient team includes other health care professionals, including pediatric residents, nutritionists, social workers and patient care coordinators.
Patients are designated a neonatologist who coordinates medical care during daytime hours. This doctor leads the team on morning rounds, discusses each patient’s condition and their care plan for the day. A second pediatrician is on hand during the day to handle emergencies while the team is doing rounds with the patients. The primary neonatologist changes each Monday and leads the team in the care of the patients in the NICU for one week. This is just a small portion of the routine planned for these patients, making sure that every step of the way they are being cared for.
“I took care of her son from the time he was born,” said Casher, referring to Elijah. “He was born 14 weeks early. We do something called primary nursing, where we try to set the same nurse with the baby as much as possible, so I was one of those nurses who cared for him most of the time.”
Providing care for a premature baby can be one of the most difficult times in a parent’s life. These babies often have several health problems that affect vital body parts like their intestines, blood, heart and lungs. At this early stage, babies are vulnerable to illnesses like respiratory distress syndrome, intravascular hemorrhage, anemia and bronchopulmonary dysplasia, to name a few. Many preemies will be on life support for as long as three months, aiding them to finish their development.
According to Jonathan Bair, media spokesperson for the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, there were 419 patients admitted to the NICU in Oakland in the last 12 months.
When Elijah was born, he weighed only one pound and 14 ounces, according to Taylor. He was approximately the size of Taylor’s palm, which only enabled her to contribute to his care using a method called “kangaroo care.” Kangaroo care was developed in South America as a way to keep premature infants warm, so that they could be released early from overcrowded hospitals. Mothers are instructed to hold their diaper-clad premature infants beneath their clothing, skin-to-skin, snuggled between their warm breasts.
“A pound and 14 ounces, it’s basically the weight of your phone,” said Taylor, holding up her smart phone. “And now he’s running around like nothing happened.”
Elijah has made a fast recovery, and has only had a couple of small surgeries, his mother said. He takes no medication for any illness. In order to celebrate his well-being, Taylor and Elijah make an effort to visit the NICU once a year.
“To be able to see her three years later, and to see how well he’s doing, it just reassures us about what we do every day,” said Casher. “It confirms that the work we do is so important and impacts people’s lives—in maybe the most difficult times of their life.”
“When I met him I was like, ‘You know, if you want to survive, I’m willing to do everything you need to help you get better,’” said Taylor, as she watched her son running around the lawn with the other children. “And if you’re willing to fight, I’m there with you.”