Daniel Quezada entered the world more than three months early. Born at 25 weeks, the micro-preemie weighed only 2 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 Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA, Daniel was placed in a special incubator, hooked up to myriad 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 is a smart, feisty pre-kindergartner nicknamed "The Boss." He and his parents returned to UCLA in October 2012 to reunite with the NICU doctors and nurses who cared for him for 15 weeks after his birth. "The NICU saved his life," says 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 was among some 400 children and their families, graduates from the Mattel or UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica NICU, attending the biennial reunion. "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," says Shohreh Samimi, Mattel NICU director. "Now, months and years later, they come together with the staff that gave them a second chance at life. This occasion is a celebration of the love, devotion and joy that only babies can evoke."
All three of Stacey Kinsey's children - daughter Lucy, born in April 2010, and twins Jake and Ruby, born in August 2012 - 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 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.
"It's so much fun to see how well our former patients are doing," says Nancy Kearsley, a Santa Monica NICU nurse. "It is really a chance for us to reconnect with the parents and hear their words of appreciation."