Looking at 2-year-old Davonte Carter, one would hardly guess he was born three months premature at a mere 1 pound, 14 ounces, and in this fragile state underwent serious surgery to prevent his esophagus from closing.
“He was only 13 inches long,” said Davonte’s mom, Kristina Tucker.
At 16, Tucker had an incompetent cervix, a condition that makes the cervix too weak to stay closed during pregnancy. Although she had been having problems with her cervix since she was 14, doctors couldn’t foresee this complication. Tucker delivered her son, and after three days of ordered bed rest she sat at her baby’s side at Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for the next four months.
“I didn’t get to hold him until he was 2 months old,” said Tucker, one of about 600 guests at this year’s neonatal unit reunion. “But I’m one of the lucky ones.”
The reunion is a 15-year-old tradition that brings happiness to nurses and patients alike. This past Sunday, the Health Pavilion at Columbia Regional Hospital swelled with candy, clowns and moments of joyful recognition.
The neonatal unit, formerly part of University Hospital, moved to Columbia Regional Hospital last November to complement the new Family Birth Center. The 36-bed unit services patients from across Missouri, admitting more than 700 babies annually.
Carol Fischer, 41, spent 17 of her 20 years as a nurse in the neonatal care unit. She remembers the time nurses came up with the idea of bringing together in one room the hospital staff, parents and care unit graduates, as the babies are called.
“When you go through something like that with the family, it’s a real good feeling to see them well,” Fischer said.
Prathima Batchu was the oldest neonatal unit graduate at this year’s reunion. The first person she ran into was Judy Bildner, a nurse who cared for her nearly 18 years ago.
“Her face looks just the same,” said Bildner, 45, a unit nurse for 22 years. “She was just as pretty then.”
Batchu’s mother, Priya Batchu, suffered from preeclampsia toxemia, a disorder whose symptoms include high blood pressure and persistent swelling. She gave birth to a 2-pound, 2-ounce girl — 2½ months prematurely.
“She came home on her due date,” Priya Batchu recalled.
The two months the Batchus spent in neonatal care bound them to Nurse Bildner for life.
“I didn’t have to worry,” Priya Batchu said. “I knew that Judy would hug and kiss her if I wasn’t there. They treat the kids like their own.”
Elizabeth James, founder and director of the neonatal care unit, recognizes the vital importance of human comfort that nurses provide. She said much has changed since she started the unit in 1971.
“The overall mortality rate has fallen and the length of stay has gotten much shorter,” she said.
Advances in obstetrics and medical technology allow babies to remain in the womb longer, even during complications, James said .
The possibilities are an inspiration to Barbara Churchill, 46, who volunteers at the care unit as a baby rocker.
“If there’s a cranky baby, I’ll rock them and read to them, so the nurses can do what they need to,” Churchill said.
Churchill attended the event with her 10-year-old daughter, Emily, and 14-year-old son, David, who helped hand out candy and entertain the smaller graduates.
“It’s hard sometimes,” Churchill said of her work. “One morning you’ll rock them and then that night you find out that they’ve passed away.”
Third-year medical resident, Laura Weidt, 28, knows the ups and downs of this business.
“With children you always have things that are really wonderful and things that are really sad,” she said. “But you save all these kids and most of them do really great.”
Weidt, who has been working at the neonatal unit in one-month rotations, said she will pursue a career in pediatrics. She said her short exposure to the unit already has her attached.
“If just gives me goose bumps to see them now,” Weidt said.
Summer Clark was one of the babies that had an effect on Weidt. Alisha Clark, 21, delivered Summer when she was 27 weeks pregnant. An ambulance drove Clark for two hours — from her hometown of Hannibal to Columbia Regional’s neonatal care unit — where Summer spent more than two months with further complications.
“She has mild hearing loss in one ear and severe in the other,” Clark said.
Still, Clark considers herself fortunate. Joined by her parents, Calvin and Priscilla Ridings, Clark was visibly excited to show off a lively and healthy 16-month-old Summer.
Like many at the reunion, Clark developed friendships with other parents and nurses during her time in the neonatal unit.
“I was here for a very long time, and I met a lot of people,” Clark said. “But Laura knows she’s my favorite.”