Erin Sunderland (right) poses with her two children

Former patients reunited with Victoria General Hospital NICU staff

"Graduates" of the NICU and their parents were reunited with staff at Jeneece Place last week.

The mood was decidedly celebratory outside Jeneece Place on Aug. 11.

Dozens of young children – many of them “graduates” of Victoria General Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) – played, laughed, ate and met up with some old friends and caregivers as the facility hosted its 32nd annual reunion party, which reunites nurses, physicians and staff with former patients and parents.

The event, which also sees families connect with others in similar situations, has become an important event for many.

Saanich resident Kerri Roberts says the nursing staff at the NICU is like family after what she and her daughter went through. Roberts gave birth to twin girls, Abbygail and Claire, just over 24 weeks into her pregnancy. The premature birth was the result of an infection that Keri contracted.

Despite some early positive signs – the babies were surprisingly both crying immediately after their birth – complications soon arose. Claire, the slightly younger twin, was born feet first and a lot sicker than her sister.

“[She] had a lot of bruising and things like that. She was a lot sicker with the infection so she was only able to survive for eight days,” Roberts said.

Abbygail, now five, spent 155 days in the NICU before being released. She struggled with her breathing and required a ventilator for two months. In turn, this caused her retinas to detach.

After numerous surgeries, Abbygail now has light and dark vision in her left eye and central vision in her right.

“Now she’s healthy, we don’t see the respiratory therapists anymore and she’s heading into kindergarten,” said Roberts, who makes it a priority to bring her daughter to the reunion every year. “I can’t not come, because it’s the only time I get to see everybody every year and thank them that we got to bring her home.”

Langford resident Erin Sutherland also endured pregnancy complications, giving birth to twins Jaxson and Maddix after 32 weeks. An emergency C-section was needed because of an ailment in Erin’s kidneys.

The twins, who celebrated their first birthday earlier this month, had a rare condition called twin-twin transfusion syndrome. In simple terms, Jaxson was taking more than his share of the nutrients in their mother’s womb.

He would need two weeks in the NICU because of a heart valve issue, while his brother, just three pounds and 11 ounces at birth, was there for three weeks before he could be released.

“It was nerve-wracking, because the whole time they were worried about Maddix because he was so small,” Sutherland said.

With her babies now happy and healthy, she also anticipates attending the reunion on an annual basis. “The [nurses and doctors] were amazing. It was a very stressful time and they helped me feel comfortable,” she said.

The day is not only special for parents, who are grateful to have seen their kids graduate from the NICU, but also the hospital staff, who get to see the children grow up from year to year.

Nurse Lisa Roe has spent the last decade working in the unit and said the annual event at Jeneece Place is her favourite day of the year.

“These kids, they’re so incredible. They’re such fighters,” she said.

“They battle through the odds to come through and then to see them come back and to have done so well … it’s the best.”

For Roberts and daughter Abbygail, Aug. 11 was extra special as it marked five years since the youngster’s release from the NICU.

“Every year we tell her that we go to this party because we celebrate when you got to come home from the hospital,” Roberts said.

joel.tansey@goldstreamgazette.com