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Health and Medicine

Exploradio: The resilience of tiny beings
Parents of premies in decades past had little more than hope to sustain them, now medical advances bolster faith in the resilience of tiny babies
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
Toby Jurging holds his daughter Harper at Akron Children's NICU reunion. Medical advances mean babies born early today spend less time in the NICU than previous generations, but families still rely on social support and hope to sustain them.
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Each year more than half a million babies in the U. S. are born too early.  In fact, one in ten will spend some time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, because of premature birth or other health problem. 

It’s a time of stress for parents, who rely equally on medical technology and inner resolve to see them through.

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair visits a NICU reunion where families share stories of faith and hope.

Exploradio: NICU reunion

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Optimism Rx
A tiny baby cries in a NICU isolet at Rainbow Babies Children’s Hospital.  Her mother, Antonette Louden, practices the optimism she’s nurtured during her baby’s long hospital stay, “She’s come along so beautifully that I’m amazed and it’s perfect.”

Kent State University psychology professor John Updegraff says optimism is one of the main prescriptions for parents learning to care for a baby with special needs.

He says optimism is a coping strategy that helps people handle the emotional strain of seeing their baby's struggles due to early birth.  Updegraff says optimism is cultivated to ward off depression in cases where people are dealing with stressful situations, "but also it helps them behave in a way that’s adaptive down the road and keeps them engaged in the situations they’re dealing with.”

But Updegraff says, the stress of having a premie can leave its mark.

An era of hope and concern
I met another mother of a premie last weekend outside the arena of the Summit County Fairgrounds, where Akron Children’s Hospital brought together generations of children born premature, their parents, doctors, and nurses for a NICU reunion.

Carol Artino recalls the emotional strain of balancing hope with the knowledge that not all premies survive.  Her daughter was born eight weeks early and Artino says she, "knew everyone would be taking care of her. But on the other hand I knew all the risks, I knew what could go wrong.”

She remembers her pediatrician coming in and saying, ‘She’s on room air, she’s breathing on her own,’ and "right then and there, I knew we’re going to be OK.”

That was 33 years ago, but you can still hear the raw emotion in Artino’s voice.  Her daughter, Cheryl Summers, spent six weeks in the NICU, and says the experience shaped both their lives.

Summers, herself a mother of two premies says she understands some of what her mother went through, "and got to live a little of what she lived"

They both say they came to the NICU reunion to express gratitude to the doctors and nurses that cared for them decades ago.

Whom to thank?
Anand Kantak is medical director of the Akron Children’s NICU.  He says at the time Summers was born, parents had little more than hope to sustain them.  He says thirty years ago the NICU was so primitive relative to what it is now, "it almost looks like those were caveman days of neo-natology.”

Despite all the medical advances in today’s care for premature babies, Kantak, as a doctor, does not take credit for the successful outcomes of babies in his care.  Kantak downplays his role, saying instead that the parents role is most important, and "they cannot underestimate that, but they have a tendency to thank us."

Kantak insists that the successful outcomes are often due to the factors beyond anyone's control, "This is not anybody’s credit, this is a celebration.”

Beating the odds
Inside the arena, the NICU reunion celebration is going strong.

Two of the people celebrating the hardest are Doreen Vernotzy and her son Travis.  She recalls dreaded words delivered to her 22 years ago.

Vernotzy reveals that Dr. Kantak put her in a little room when Travis was about 5 or 6 days old and told her he wasn’t going to survive.

Born 99 days early at 1.6 pounds, Travis spent his first two years in the hospital.  Even now 20 years later, he recalls beating the odds.

But Travis beat the odds.  He says it was his will that carried him through, “I wanted to live. I wanted to live so bad.”

Balancing hope with optimism
This is the first time in 20 years all of Akron Children’s NICU graduates have been invited to get together.

Kristie Stefan is head of the March of Dimes NICU Family Support Unit, and one of the event organizers.  She knows firsthand what families with premies go through.

She says she had two little girls born 10 weeks early and they were brought over to Children’s. Her daughter Michaela spent six weeks in the NICU, but her twin, Alexandria..."unfortunately we lost her when she was 18 days old due to an intestinal infection.”

Her husband, Matt, realized that hope can be a double-edged sword.  He says if you’re not prepared for it, your hope can get too high.  When one twin died, he says, "you come to realize that this is actually pretty dangerous and things happen."  But optimism is a powerful tool for a parent, and Stefan explains that he feels, "very blessed that Michaela is so healthy and doing really well.”

Optimism fed by gratitude, hope tempered with forbearance, faith in doctors, nurses and medical technology, these are the stories of the NICU families and their children.

Still, no one takes credit for the successful outcomes.  Nurses credit the family’s devotion, parents credit the nurses and doctors, and the doctor I interviewed says he simply helps the process.  

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