Sunday, April 05, 2009

Maryland Sig Eps Sponsor Party for NICU Babies

Thriving babies reunited with intensive-caregivers

Newborn care unit holds reunion for its graduates
Fernando Mena  holds Anja Land

Dr. Fernando Mena holds year-old Anja Land, who was nurtured to health after her premature birth. (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron / April 4, 2009)

The tyke in the Tigers cap drew his foot back, kicked as hard as he could and sent the soccer ball rolling toward the net.

Jordan Champion, 3, of Suitland, decked out in a T-shirt that read "A Monster Ate My Socks," didn't seem to care all that much whether his shot eluded the goalie across from him, a 47-year-old physician named Fernando Mena. Neither did Mena, who just happened to let the ball roll through his legs.

When the cluster of grown-ups around Jordan burst into applause, it was for his bigger triumph: Like the dozens of other kids and 200 or so parents on hand for a celebration at the Hippodrome on Saturday, he spent his first few weeks clinging to life in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, of University of Maryland Medical Center.

"You'd never know he was born [weighing] just 2 pounds, would you?" said his mother, Felice Johnson, as Jordan, now 30 pounds, ambled off to a face-painting booth.

The occasion was the NICU Reunion, a gathering the doctors and nurses of the University of Maryland NICU (including Mena, its director) stage every two years, welcoming hugs, balloons and joyous tears.

"It's a celebration of their lives," said Brenda Hussey-Gardner, the pediatrics professor who coordinates the NICU's follow-up program and helps organize the reunions. "It's a great opportunity for the doctors and nurses to see these babies - some of whom were born weighing less than a pound - again, now healthy, and for the families to enjoy their company in a less stressful setting."

Saturday's party had a sports theme. Fraternity brothers from Sigma Phi Epsilon at the University of Maryland set up pint-sized basketball, gymnastics and car racing booths, and as kids ages 1 to 7 watched or tested their skills, their parents shared stories that were as harrowing as they were transcendent.

Liana Land of Cambridge jostled Anja, 1, on her knee, recalling the "emotional roller coaster" of Anja's first 12 weeks, all spent in the NICU. Anja, born in the sixth month of Land's pregnancy, weighed 20 ounces and was given a 50 percent chance of surviving.

The child endured eye surgery in the hospital, then another four months on a respirator.

Today she's healthy, smiling, and like any 1-year-old, always on the lookout for something to stuff in her mouth.

"The doctors and nurses were my family," says Land. "It's wonderful to come back and see them."

A few tables away, Greg and Cecilia McLean of Sharpsburg spoke of their son Chase's ordeal. Chase, 7, was so premature at birth that one of his lungs tore. Doctors inserted tubes into his chest in the delivery room. On a ventilator for 68 of his 88 days in the NICU, Chase underwent brain and eye surgeries.

Today the only sign of those traumatic weeks is the pair of glasses he wears.

He flashed the blue bracelet he won by sinking a basket in a child-sized hoop. "I beat my brothers," he said.

As the Sister Sledge oldie "We Are Family" throbbed through loudspeakers, nurses and doctors spoke of the deep connections they develop with their patients. "They give us so many scares," said Mena, "so it's wonderful to be able to see them here, kicking balls and running around." The feeling is clearly mutual.

Nurses who tended to Chase attend his birthday parties, said his mother, Cecilia, who fought back tears as she recalled the months when she didn't know, day to day, whether the first of her four children would survive at all.

"It was a very real [possibility] he would not make it," she said, her voice quavering as she looked around at a room full of families that seemed as normal, happy and healthy as any. "Look at what I'd have missed out on."

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