Daniel Quezada came into this world more than three months early. Born at 25 weeks, the micro-preemie weighed only two pounds and was so small he could fit into his father's palm. Praying for their third child, his parents weren't sure he would survive.
In the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, Daniel was placed in a special incubator, hooked up to a myriad of tubes and monitors, and cared for by a team of experts who specialize in treating medically fragile newborns. Their goal: to keep Daniel alive so that he could continue to develop as if he were still in his mother's womb.
Three years later, Daniel, now a smart, feisty pre-kindergartner nicknamed "the Boss," returned to UCLA to reunite with the NICU doctors and nurses who cared for him for 15 long weeks after his birth. "The NICU saved his life," said Daniel's father Manuel Quezada. "They are the best. They knew him when he was a tiny little baby with tubes coming out everywhere. It's fun to see the nurses again so they can see him running around like any other kid."
Daniel joined approximately 400 NICU "graduates" and their families at a reunion with their former caregivers Sunday, Oct. 7, at the Sunset Canyon Recreation Center. Cared for either at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital in Westwood or UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, NICU "babies" and families began attending this celebration in 1978. It's now held every other year at the UCLA campus.
The NICU nurses turned the grand event into every child's dream party, with pony rides, a petting zoo, a bounce house, face painting, puppet shows, stilt-walking musicians, toys donated by Mattel, Inc., and a picnic lunch.
"The reunion creates a special moment to highlight the sacredness of what occurred in the lives of these children at the moment of their births," said Shohreh Samimi, NICU unit director at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital. "Both the babies and their parents experienced an almost unspeakable trauma of being separated at the very beginning of the babies' lives and enduring much suffering.
"Now, months and years later," Samimi said, "they come together with the staff that gave them a second chance at life. This is a celebration of the love, devotion and joy that only babies can evoke."
Jenna and Jeff Weaker of Sun Valley were very excited to bring their 2 ½ year-old-son to see the nurses and other NICU families with whom they have stayed in touch. Luke, who was born at 32 weeks (full gestation is 40 weeks) and battled serious lung problems, stayed in the NICU for about eight weeks.
"The attention the NICU team gave our son was beyond explanation," recalled Jenna. "They made us feel safe and reassured us that they would not give up on Luke."
All three of Stacey Kinsey's children - a daughter, now age 2, and twins, age 9 weeks, - stayed in the NICU. The Simi Valley mom said she and her husband were overjoyed to show how well their kids are doing and to personally thank the NICU team.
Not all guests were recent NICU grads. Sara Van der Linden, 34, of Santa Paula, was in the NICU for 59 days, starting in December 1977. She has attended more than 20 reunions. The highlight for Van der Linden, who works at an insurance company and holds an M.B.A., was walking around with her former NICU nurse, Joyce Keeler. The pair talked with nurses and families to offer hope and encouragement that NICU graduates can grow up and become successful.
Twins and triplets were also among the guests, including a set of triplets who, two years ago, stayed at the Santa Monica campus for less than two weeks. David and Heather Gelb of Culver City brought their two daughters and son to the celebration.
"It's so much fun to see how well our former patients are doing," said Nancy Kearsley, a NICU nurse at Santa Monica where 51 sets of twins and four sets of triplets were cared for in their unit last year. "It is a really a chance for us to reconnect with the parents and hear their words of appreciation."
Typically, patients come to the NICU due to extreme prematurity, some as young as 24 weeks gestation and weighing not much more than a pound. Other patients are born full-term but with life-threatening illnesses such as heart, kidney, neurological or pulmonary problems that require emergency interventions.
The Gelb triplets and their parents, David and Heather, enjoy the day. UCLA's NICU offers the most advanced interventions available, with medical and surgical specialists on call 24 hours a day to address every possible physiological need. UCLA's experts are also involved in neonatal research such as the early management of hypoxia (oxygen depletion) in newborns; innovative cardiac surgery within moments of birth; and neurological non-invasive monitoring that can detect brain malfunctioning.
The NICU also offers developmental interventions that enhance growth and promote maternal bonding; extensive resources to support breastfeeding; parent support groups; and education and support in the transition from hospital to home.
"Our babies and families are loved always, and if a critical child is going to have a chance at survival, UCLA is the place to be," added Joyce Keeler, a NICU nurse at UCLA for more than 35 years.