BANGOR, Maine — Multicolored, heart-shaped balloons floated through Eastern Maine Medical Center’s Mason Auditorium on Sunday, setting a festive tone for the annual reunion of former patients and their families who have been cared for in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU.
Children of all ages filled the auditorium. They snacked on brownies and punch while enduring the admiration of strangers. They tossed beanbags at targets, strung beads onto bracelets and fished for mystery prizes in a nearby game room. The sound of their excited laughter and their parents’ friendly chatter was the sound of any children’s party.
“This is an important opportunity for our families to come back and show us how their kids have grown and developed over the years,” said NICU nurse manager Tina Gist. Many families develop close ties while their infants are receiving special care, she said, and the annual reunion is a chance to reconnect and compare notes. In addition, she said, many nurses and other care providers yearn to know how the babies they care for have fared after leaving the hospital.
“The staff love to see the families come back,” she said.
First-time attendees included Chris and Toni Polk of Calais with their 8-month-old daughter, Emma, dressed up and gazing with interest at the bright and noisy surroundings. Emma was born last September at only 25 weeks’ gestation — 37 to 40 weeks is normal — and weighed just 1 pound, 15 ounces, said her mother, Toni, a first-time mother at 34.
When she arrived in the emergency room ready to deliver, doctors at Calais Regional Hospital wanted to send Toni by ambulance to EMMC. Instead, the Bangor hospital dispatched its special neonatal transport unit — a fully equipped NICU on wheels — to Calais, arriving just before tiny Emma made her appearance in the world.
“Her arm was as big around as my little finger,” Chris Polk recalled. “I fell right in love with my little girl.” The EMMC crew whisked Emma back to Bangor, and Toni followed two days later. Emma spent the better part of three months in the NICU, with her mother a constant nearby presence. Because a baby’s lungs are among the last organs to develop, Emma used a machine to help her breathe. She underwent heart surgery to correct a leaky valve. A blood clot in her leg necessitated another surgery, and she received a couple of blood transfusions.
Now, chubby-cheeked and content, Emma still faces some medical challenges, her parents said, but the future looks bright. They credit the NICU with saving their little girl’s life.
“You could not have asked for a better team,” said Chris Polk, referring to the NICU staff.
“If it wasn’t for them, she literally would not be here,” Toni Polk added.
Also at the party was 12-year-old Alyssa Stubbs of Bangor, along with her mother, Nancy Stubbs. Alyssa was born full-term.
“But for whatever reason, I chose not to breathe,” she said, with a shrug. She required resuscitation at birth, followed by a short stay in the NICU. Nancy was with her throughout.
“I felt like I was home,” she said. “They were just great.”
With her 13th birthday coming up, Alyssa, now a seventh-grader at Orono Middle School, has decided to hold a community fundraiser for the NICU.
“I chose them because they did so much for me,” she said.
The party will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, June 18, at the Keith Anderson Community House in Orono. Alyssa hopes to attract a generous and supportive crowd by featuring line dancing, face painting and other activities at the event.
Gist said the NICU cares for about 400 babies — and their families — every year. Many newborns come to EMMC from smaller hospitals in outlying communities, she said, and a growing number suffer from withdrawal symptoms due to their mothers’ drug use.