A recent reunion of graduates in Mountain View had absolutely nothing to do with diplomas. In fact, some of these graduates still wear diapers.
In what has become an annual tradition for the past 19 years, El Camino Hospital hosted a reunion of former patients – or “graduates” – and the staff of its 20-bed, Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
The Sept. 7 gathering, according to NICU Clinical Manager Jody Charles, RN, was among the largest ever hosted by the hospital – more than 200 families of premature babies shared memories, hugs and laughs with Charles’ NICU staff. Charles noted that the annual get-together serves as her staff’s reward for their tireless efforts in nursing preterm babies to health.
“It was so much fun,” Charles said. “It’s very heartwarming for us to see the families and see where they’re at. … It’s a bit of a mutual admiration society.”
The reunion included San Jose resident Monica Kough and her 17-month-old son, Eli. Like other families at the event, Kough credited the hospital’s NICU staff for turning what was a dire situation into a positive outcome.
During her 28th week of pregnancy, Kough said her worst fears came true when her uterus ruptured. What made the situation especially critical, she noted, was the fact that she gave birth to her son, Ty, at 23 weeks into pregnancy one year earlier at El Camino’s NICU. He lived just 20 minutes.
According to the March of Dimes, preterm birth is the leading cause of newborn death in the U.S. More than half a million babies are born prematurely each year. In California, more than 58,000 babies are born prematurely annually.
This time around, Kough again found herself at the NICU undergoing an emergency C-section. Underdeveloped because of his premature birth, Eli spent 68 days in the NICU and learned functions most full-term babies gain during the 36th week of pregnancy, such as sucking, swallowing and breathing simultaneously. He also received three blood transfusions during his stay at the hospital.
“It was the scariest experience of my life,” said Kough, who later became a March of Dimes Ambassador – a first among El Camino NICU families – to help her cope with the loss of Ty and help others. “I couldn’t help but have flashbacks from my previous experience.”
Kough said it was the hospital’s NICU staff that made the ultimate difference for her family. She noted that the unit’s medical professionals – from nurses to doctors and everyone in between – remained patient and compassionate with her, despite facing a barrage of medical questions and other expressed concerns.
“I don’t know how I would’ve made it out of there sanely without them,” Kough said of the hospital’s NICU staff. “You go into it thinking, ‘How can I ever leave and go home to sleep?’ … They treat you like a human being. That’s exactly what you need in that situation.”
“It’s a lot of conversations and a lot of repeating,” added Charles regarding handling patients and family members in the NICU. “I often remind them that we will have the same conversation a lot of times, and that’s OK. … I always tell people that we’re here to help them exhale.”
These days, Kough said, Eli is “thriving like any 17-month-old.” Kough now visits the NICU on occasion with Eli and said she’s always welcomed “with open arms and a ‘please come in.’”
Charles noted that experiences like Kough’s often have an effect on her and her staff. At times, it’s not just the mothers and fathers who shed tears, but the staff’s nurses and physicians as well. On countless occasions, Charles said she’s seen doctors stay up all night tending to struggling babies. Those experiences, she added, create lifelong bonds between her staff and the families they serve.
“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s OK, but the people who do it are extremely passionate about it,” she said. “It’s extremely rewarding to our staff to see that they make a difference. We are a part of those families for the rest of their lives. … We’re here for any baby.”