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For the little ones.

Byline: Francesca Fontana The Register-Guard

SPRINGFIELD - On Dec. 9, 2013, Alayna Canales held her newborn son Emmitt for the first time, and she recalls how un imaginably small he was.

"I remember the first time they put him on me, there wasn't even enough room for both my hands to be on him," Canales said.

Canales, 26 at the time, began having difficulties at the seventh week of her pregnancy, was on complete bed rest by 12 weeks and on hospital bed rest by 20 weeks. She said it was stressful to wait, "just knowing that if he came (too early), there was nothing that they could do."

Emmitt was born at 26 weeks, weighing 2 pounds 3 ounces.

As she held him, Canales thought, "I don't even know how to hold him, let alone take care of him."

She remembers her first days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at River Bend in Springfield as a fearful time.

"Even though you have support, you feel totally alone in it," Canales recalled Sunday at the hospital neonatal unit's annual reunion and picnic. "There's fear and there's anxiety, and you don't know how to care for these children."

Medical interventions such as steroid shots and magnesium sulfate helped speed Emmitt's development outside the womb, but Canales and her husband, James, initially limited their visitors to close family and friends.

Her older son, Alex, age 21/2 at the time, was afraid of his new baby brother.

"(Alex) called (Emmitt) a monster because he was hooked up to tubes, and he didn't understand," Canales said.

Now that Emmitt has grown, the two brothers have a great relationship, their mother said.

Canales, of Springfield, said the staff in the NICU helped her through the most difficult times. She remembers how Emmitt's primary daytime nurse, named Martha, helped teach her how to take care of her baby.

"She taught me things that I could do to bond with him when he was so fragile, and gave me the confidence to be able to do that," Canales said Sunday. "She really went the extra step to teach me how to be his mother."

Emmitt was in the NICU for 110 days, and Canales kept souvenirs of his time at the hospital in a "memory box."

"It's a little shoebox with little outfits that he wore and blood pressure cuffs and pictures - all sorts of little things that we can share with him so he knows his story," Canales said.

Sunday's NICU reunion drew more than 100 people, but it was the first for Canales, who took her two sons to enjoy activities such as face-painting and blowing bubbles in the same place that helped Emmitt grow.

"It's nice to have a celebration here rather than our last memories here," Canales said. "We're able to celebrate rather than stress."

Dr. Igor Gladstone is one of five neonatologists in the neonatal unit at RiverBend. Gladstone said the unit sees almost 600 babies a year, from Newport, Albany and Lebanon all the way down to Coos Bay and Roseburg.

Gladstone said what keeps infants in the NICU the longest are breathing problems, and having the strength and reflexes to be able to eat a full meal.

"The overriding thing they need is monitoring," Gladstone said. "Because they forget to breathe, they need to be monitored every second of their lives."

Gladstone said the smaller infants, those weighing less that 4 pounds, cannot keep their temperature up and so are placed in isolettes, incubator units that regulate temperature and humidity.

About half of the infants in the NICU are born at less than 34 weeks, while a full-term baby arrives at about 40 weeks, Gladstone said.

Dr. Rebecca Bent, medical director of the neonatal unit, explained that for the extremely premature babies, called periviable, between 23 and 25 weeks is the threshold of survivability.

About half of the youngest babies who survive may have problems with vision, hearing, cerebral palsy, intellectual disability or chronic lung disease, she said.

"Past the 25-week mark, as a general rule, given other normalcy like normal growth, the less the likelihood of long-term serious problems," Bent said.

Bent said the relationship with parents and children who graduate from the neonatal unit makes the annual reunion emotional for her.

"We go through a lot together," Bent said. "We're a part of these families' lives at a time that is very challenging for them."

Kirsten Tu of Springfield celebrated her 33rd birthday at Sunday's celebration. Her first and only child, son Aven, was born in 2009 at 25 weeks, weighing 2 pounds and 4 ounces.

Tu said her son spent 84 days in the NICU. During her time in the unit, Tu was approached by a nurse to join the hospital's newly formed Family Advisory Council within the NICU. She and another mother wrote a grant to the nonprofit Children's Miracle Network to upgrade the unit's aesthetics and make it feel more inviting.

"When you have a baby here for X amount of weeks or months, it becomes your home away from home," Tu said.

In the unit, photos of past "graduates" between the ages of 1 and 28 hang in the hallway, with statistics such as birth weight and gestational age listed in a corner.

The hallway is called the Hall of Hope, and Tu's goal is to inspire hope in parents of premature infants.

"Parents can say, 'Hey, that's what my baby weighs,' and (know) that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that their child's life is going to move past the NICU stage," Tu said.

Tu recalled her time in the unit as the scariest of her life, but also an experience she will always cherish.

"It taught me a lot not only about myself but about my son," Tu said. "How resilient he is, how strong he is, and the character that he has."

Gladstone said the reunion is a way for doctors to "recharge their batteries."

"This is what I think of at 2 in the morning when I'm trying to resuscitate a 24-week-old, or when I'm talking with parents scared to death that they're coming in and their twins are going to die," Gladstone said.

"To think of this picnic ... to see (the children) alive, that's what keeps us going."

Follow Francesca on Twitter @francescamarief. Email
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Title Annotation:Healthcare
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 21, 2015
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