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Community Medical Center’s neonatal ICU graduates meet up at 5th reunion

By Dillion Kato of the Missoulian

Listening to the greetings and stories being shared at Caras Park, it seemed like there was one big family reunion going on.

While all the people who gathered on Sunday weren’t related, they shared another common bond. All of them had a child who had been in Community Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or who were NICU nurses. The event served as a reunion for all of the unit’s “graduates.”

Sunday was the fifth NICU reunion, which the hospital holds every five years, said Kim McKearnan, director of children’s services at Community Medical Center.

McKearnan said she expected more than 1,000 people, including the former NICU patients, their families and nursing staff, to attend the event.

Dr. Bonnie Stephens, medical director at Community’s NICU, said her department sees about 200 babies every year, with premature birth being the most common cause that sends a newborn to the NICU.

She said the time they spend in the unit forms a strong bond between the nurses and the patients, as well as the families who get to know one another during the incredibly stressful time.

“Sometimes, the other families in the NICU are the only ones who know what they are going through,” Stephens said.

Kristin Mayo has seen Community’s NICU from both sides. All six of her children needed to be admitted to the unit, first a single child, then triplets, then twins. They each spent between five and 11 weeks there.

At the same time, Mayo was also an NICU nurse at Community. While it was an emotional ordeal each time, she said there was some comfort that it was her “second family” taking care of her children.

“You know too much. You know the risks and the rates, especially with multiple births,” she said.

Mayo said one of the most difficult parts for parents is that depending on how small or fragile their child is, it can be days or even weeks before they can so much as hold them.

At the center of the celebration, poster boards displayed photos of each child and their family arranged by the year they “graduated” from NICU.

JC Pritzl pointed out his photo on the 1992 board. He was born premature in Salt Lake City and spent four weeks there before being transported back to NICU in Missoula, where he stayed for another two weeks.

“They’re not sick babies, they’re just little babies,” said Pritzl’s mother Leyann.

In the spring, Pritzl graduated from the Culinary Arts Program at Missoula College. He said one day he wants to open his own restaurant.

His parents met and spoke with Bev Hayward, one of the NICU nurses at the time JC was in the hospital.

“Well, he’s certainly gotten bigger,” she said.

Hayward spent 20 years as a nurse in Community’s NICU before retiring two years ago. She said it was wonderful to see everyone back together again.

“I wouldn’t recognize any of them, but they say hi and show me their photos and I remember,” she said.

At one edge of the pavilion, the hospital had set up an NICU Isolette incubator, similar to the chamber so many of the kids would have been in. Hayward said it was difficult for some parents to see it and relive the memories, but that others wanted to show their children what their first few weeks were like.

“I spent a lot of time staring into that,” Gina Martinez said.

Sunday was the 16th birthday of Martinez’s daughter Olivia. In 1998, Olivia was born premature in Polson and had to be rushed to Community shortly after birth. Her father Ancel said when his daughter arrived in Missoula, the hospital staff couldn’t find a pulse and was about to declare Olivia when she was finally able to be resuscitated.

Olivia was in the NICU until Labor Day. Now, she’s a junior in high school who said she likes playing soccer and basketball. Her favorite subjects are history and English, and while she hasn’t decided what she wants to study in college, she said she’s hoping to go out of state for school.

The Martinez family came to Missoula for the reunion and a vacation from their home in San Francisco. They said they came to the 2004 event as well.

“The staff was so great. They really made the best out a bad situation,” Ancel said.