Local families celebrate lives of premature babies
In October 2010, Leah Paquette made her journey from the womb to the outside world 13 weeks early. Weighing only 1 pound, 4.2 ounces and measuring a mere 11-and-a-half inches, Leah was transferred to the Presbyterian Hemby Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, where she spent the next 79 days.
With the help of the Presbyterian medical staff, Leah persevered through a difficult two-and-a-half months and the Matthews tot was among the nearly 1,000 children who attended Hemby’s 30th annual NICU Reunion last week.
Each year, Presbyterian’s Hemby Children’s Hospital hosts an event for children, and their families, who have “graduated” from the NICU after spending 15 or more days in the unit. It’s a chance for families who shared the NICU experience to reconnect and celebrate the life and progress of their “miracle babies.” Former patients come from all over the region, including Matthews, Mint Hill, Charlotte, Huntersville, Mooresville, and Union County.
The NICU is a special intensive care unit for newborns. Staff care for babies born as early as 23 weeks – 17 weeks before full term – as well as full-term babies who are critically ill when they’re born. Many require breathing assistance, feeding tubes and other medical interventions, and some, like Leah, have to stay for months.
Leah’s parents, Dan Paquette and Terri Dombroske, knew early on they would endure a difficult pregnancy. They had already faced difficulty conceiving and during an ultrasound, the doctors found a problem with the placenta.
By week 26, Dombroske was diagnosed with HELLP Syndrome, a life-threatening condition related to pre-eclampsia. The doctors performed an emergency cesarean at week 27.
Because of the high-risk health factors, Paquette was not allowed in the operating room to be with his wife during the procedure, or experience the birth of his daughter. When he first saw Leah in the NICU, he was shocked.
“When you see your baby for the first time, it’s supposed to be an exceptionally happy moment,” he said. “When you see a child that small, there’s some degree of concern.”
Dombroske was heavily medicated after the delivery and was not able to see Leah until the following day. Leah was placed in an incubator, with heart monitors and various tubes, including one for feeding, hooked up to her tiny body. Her skin was paper-thin and translucent, and she was unnaturally small.
“I lost it when I saw her in the incubator,” Dombroske said. “You have a vision, and that’s not what you expect to see.”
Paquette and Dombroske eventually returned home, but drove to the hospital each day to visit Leah.
“It’s a strange feeling, like babysitting someone else’s kid,” Paquette said of visiting Leah in the hospital. “You’re watching a process that really should have been happening in the womb.”
After 79 days, Leah was finally ready to come home on Christmas Eve 2010.
Now, at nearly 19 months, Leah is showing no long-term health issues. Although she is still small and working with a speech therapist to develop language skills, her parents expect her to be on the same level as other children by the time she turns 3.
This will be the second time Leah and her parents have attended a NICU reunion.
They’re also excited about reconnecting with the families, doctors and nurses they met while Leah was in the NICU.
“Everyone was just awesome, the way they made you feel comfortable,” Dombroske said.
Although Leah’s stay in the NICU was difficult for the family, it was a life-changing experience all three will carry with them the rest of their lives.
“It’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but looking back, I wouldn’t do it any other way,” Paquette said. “We have this bond with the NICU. You spend so much time there that it’s part of you, like a special club. (You become) very grateful for what they’re able to do for your child. I guess (the reunion) is kind of a homecoming.”