Every parent hopes for a healthy pregnancy and child, but sometimes things don’t always go as planned.
For parents of babies admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) with serious health complications, the first days of a baby’s life can often be a very scary and overwhelming time. In many cases, parents are coping with the unknowns of the future — unsure of whether their child will be healthy, what challenges they may face and when they will get to go home.
To help ease these difficulties, caregivers at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns work to build close relationships with each family in the NICU, providing comfort and ease to families who have to leave their babies behind.
“We know how hard it can be for our NICU families,” says Courtney Akel, manager of the Sharp Mary Birch NICU. “Part of our job is supporting the family, so they can be there for their baby. We often form very close bonds with the parents and the extended family.”
Although lengths of stay vary, it’s always a celebratory experience for both the parents and the entire care team when a baby is well enough to go home.
As part of Sharp Mary Birch’s continued celebration of these tiny survivors, the NICU hosts an annual Little Graduate Reunion each fall. The event is an opportunity for past NICU families to reunite with the doctors, nurses and team members who cared for them during their stay and celebrate their child’s health.
This year’s Little Grad Reunion was the 21st annual event. To accommodate growing attendance, the reunion was held off-campus for the first time at NTC Park in Liberty Station. Activities included a bounce house, bubble station, music, costumed Storm Troopers, face painting, photo booth and games for all ages to enjoy. Nearly 600 people attended the event, including parents, grandparents, siblings and graduates.
“Our staff works to forge meaningful connections with each family that comes through our doors,” says Akel. “Because of this, they often become an extension of our NICU family, and we stay connected long after the child goes home.”
This lifelong connection is evident as many of the same families return to the reunion year after year, with many of the “Little Grads” now in their teens.
While this event is a special place for families to celebrate their child’s growth, Akel notes that the reunion is equally as important for the NICU staff.
“It’s a place for families to say thank you and to give hugs that last just one extra second. We’ve cried with these parents on days with setbacks, celebrated with them when their baby was finally breathing on their own, and cheered on the day they waved goodbye and walked outside with their baby for the very first time,” she says. “So this is a day that rekindles the fire for the care team to continue this passion work that they do so well. They see firsthand the difference they’re making every day.”