Since the Porter Regional Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) was established, the holiday party for graduated NICU babies and their families has become a yearly tradition. Because having a baby in the NICU can bring trying times, parents and their babies often create long-lasting bonds with the NICU nurses, which is why having this party every year to see how the children have grown and thrived is of the utmost importance to everyone involved.
Food, crafts, and even presents from Santa were just the icing on top of bringing everyone together. According to the Unit Director of Women and Children’s Services at Porter Regional Hospital, Elaine Merkel, the NICU holiday party began as a way for nurses to see the babies they’ve cared for after they’ve graduated from the NICU and have since grown exponentially.
“When a baby is in the NICU, there’s a bond that builds between parents and the nurses and I think it gives them hope when their baby is up there and weighs 2 pounds to see kids who have made it through,” Merkel said. “I started out my career in the NICU right out of nursing school, so I’ve been involved with it for 35 years and I’ve seen the miracles that come out of there and it’s just the most rewarding kind of nursing you can do.”
One NICU Nurse, Kelly Bartholomew, took over coordinating the event after the previous lead nurse retired. Bartholomew also runs the Neonatal Development Clinic, which ensures that NICU graduates are growing and developing at the rate they should be. As part of the clinic, she is able to get to know the parents and children even more, which made her the perfect fit as the coordinator for the holiday party.
“We do this party so that the kids are able to come with their families and see Santa Claus and interact with other NICU graduates which is nice because they can see that they’re part of a community and not just that one person,” said Bartholomew. “It’s nice for them to be able to connect with kids their own age and parents who were in the unit at the same time also start to bond and become friends. Not every hospital has a NICU, and we’re blessed to have one here at Porter Regional so we can take care of the babies here with their moms; so they don’t have to be transferred.”
Nurse Educator in the NICU, Donna Sullivan, has been a part of the NICU in both professional and personal capacities. After her son was born prematurely and placed in the NICU, Sullivan wanted to begin educating both nurses and parents on what the NICU was all about.
“Education is important so that we can maintain the highest level of care that we can, keeping up with evidence-based practice enhances our babies' chance of success in the future and keeping our nurses and parents educated helps that process,” Sullivan said. “Community events are something the nurses really appreciate because we like to see where the babies have gone after they’ve left our unit; we rarely get the chance to do that other than hospital events like this.”
Patient turned advocate and ambassador, Stephanie Trendowski, has become one of the most prominent ambassadors for maternal and infant health. As a preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome survivor, Trendowski makes it her mission to advocate for women and premature babies with the 2020 Mom and Preeclampsia Foundation.
“It was my calling to get into advocacy work and now I’m actually working with the State Health Commissioner, the Governor’s Office, and our State Senators to bring about new laws to our state. I’ve met with the Board of Directors here, and of course, Elaine and her team, to see how we can bridge the gaps; they’ve just been wonderful to work with,” Trendowski said. “This is like our second family, it keeps me going, it’s like my therapy after everything we’ve been through.”
Alexandra Maciel and Eric Rosas along with their daughter Lilianna Rosas were grateful to be able to come back and see the nurses who helped them get through such a hard time when their daughter was in the NICU, as well as bond with other families who have gone through similar situations.
“We wanted to come and connect with everyone who sort of went through the same experience and see how all the kids are doing because luckily, Lilianna has been doing great,” Rosas said. “It brings back some memories of when everything happened, but at the same time, it’s comforting to see everyone who also went through the same thing thriving.”
“I feel like when you’re in the NICU it’s just a whirlwind, there’s so much going on, and you’re just trying to get through so it’s so nice to come back and be of a better mind, and a little bit removed from everything and see everybody,” Maciel said. “I’m shocked that this has been going on for so long, and the amount of people is really great because there are so many families that the NICU has helped.”