Seven years ago, Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital opened the Kim and Steven Ullman Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in response to the valley’s growing community, and to ensure that critical care for the tiniest of Santa Clarita Valley patients could be kept close to home.
“The NICU itself is a legacy for generations to come,” said Marlee Lauffer, president of the Henry Mayo Newhall Foundation and vice president of marketing and communications at the hospital. “Today, this unit has become an essential part of our hospital’s mission of excellence in patient care and an invaluable resource for so many families. We are growing to meet the needs of this community, and we’re growing to meet your needs.”
Now, seven years later, 229 of the children who “graduated” from the NICU and their families attended the seventh annual NICU Reunion on Saturday, June 15, at Dr. Richard H. Rioux Memorial Park in Stevenson Ranch.
“We started on a patio here at Henry Mayo and have grown to about 600 people (attending the event),” said Elizabeth Tarantini, perinatal social worker at the hospital. “We know the struggles that everybody deals with when they become part of our NICU family, and we truly feel this is a family reunion.”
The reunion was not only a chance for all of the patients to reconnect with some of the staff that helped care for them during their NICU stay, but also a chance to celebrate their success, according to Mike Crawford, a marketing specialist at the hospital.
“It’s just a celebration of their success stories because a lot of them were tiny when they started off, now look at them,” said Emily Kim, community benefit specialist for the hospital. “We invite all of our past NICU families to come here and the majority of our NICU staff are here, as well.”
Dr. Sukshma Sreepathi, the NICU’s medical director, said this is one of the biggest reunions she’s seen.
“I just can’t believe it’s been seven years since we opened the NICU,” Sreepathi added. “We opened our doors to the tiniest babies of Santa Clarita and their families and have taken care of over 1,000 babies to date. It makes us very proud to seem them all doing so well, and have their families coming here to celebrate that with us.”
Jara Fernandez’s son Milos Healey spent two months in the NICU after he was born in 2013. When her first son was born, there was no NICU, and Fernandez said it’s lucky he didn’t need one then.
“If we wouldn’t have had a NICU when Milos was born, we would’ve been in trouble because they would’ve sent him away and we would’ve never been able to see him,” Fernandez added. “Imagine if he was far away at UCLA or wherever for those two months? We would’ve not seen our baby and he would’ve had to be at the hospital by himself, so we are very grateful that it all worked out — we’re very lucky.”
Fernandez has been bringing Milos, 5, to the reunion every year, and said she loves coming because “it’s like we didn’t leave when you see their faces again.”
“This is definitely one of the best celebrations we do every year,” Lauffer said. “This reunion today is really about a celebration of life for all of the families. It’s also a joyous thank you to all of our nurses and all of our hospital staff.”
Every kid that’s been in the NICU for the last seven years was invited to attend the event, which was set up like a “big fair” with bounce houses, face painting, dancing and lots of play equipment for the kids, as well as food, beverages and ice cream.
During the event, families heard from some of the NICU staff as well as the Ricardo family, who had not only one, but two NICU graduates. First came Manolo, who was born at 32 weeks with an 18-day stay in the NICU, then last year, came Paloma, who was born at 28 weeks.
“Having a premature baby or having your baby in the NICU is no walk in the park,” said mother Antoinette Ricardo. “It comes with many feelings of fear, guilt, shame, worry; feelings that it was my fault — that my body couldn’t keep my baby inside. And I was no stranger to those feelings.”
Once a woman has a premature child, their risk of having another is extremely high, so when Ricardo was pregnant with Paloma, she was given a high risk prognosis, which came with weekly doctor’s visits, weekly progesterone shots, hormone therapies, a magnesium drip and bedrest.
“My baby girl still made her grand entrance into this world one whole month earlier than her brother, tripling his stay at 70 days,” Ricardo said. “The one thing that has made this whole experience so special is the wonderful men and women we have the privilege and honor of being with today … It’s something so incredibly special and wonderful to see our NICU babies and their families thriving.”
Every NICU graduating class was then recognized and photos of each “graduating class” were taken before families returned to the fun activities for the remainder of the event.
“Small babies and their parents are really true warriors,” Sreepathi said. “Our babies are small, but very strong. They fight battles with unknown ends and unknown outcomes. They are strong, never lose hope and prove that life is worth fighting for. They’ve taught me to be patient, positive and never give up when a situation seems hopeless.”