'There's no better feeling': OHRH's NICU reunion returns

The first floor of the Owensboro Health Regional Hospital was transformed into “Camp NICU” on Sunday — complemented with the likes of familial activities and games, log-inspired food options and summer camp apparel — in honor of the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit’s (NICU) reunion.

The event, open to all NICU graduates and their respective household family members, has been an annual happening for the unit since 2014 before being paused in 2020 due to the concerns and social distancing protocols regarding the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials within the unit expressed their excitement in seeing the reunion return after an extended hiatus.

“It’s a great event,” said Stephanie Tuell, manager of nursing for the NICU and special care nursery. “The NICU nurses make such an impact on these babies and their families and to bring those babies back now that they’ve grown, (with some) being 13 (years old) that are coming, (is) super cool.”

“We’ve missed having (this event),” said Dr. Bridget Burshears, a neonatologist, who specializes in caring for newborns born early or that have medical concerns. “It’s a great reminder of why we do what we do. It’s one of the most fulfilling days of the year for us.”

Since opening its doors in 2010, OHRH’s NICU has cared for more than 3,000 babies, with a majority coming from Owensboro, Daviess County and the surrounding area. According to a press release, the unit’s capacity consists of 20 bays while the average number of babies in the unit typically hovers around 10 — with most staying for about 10 to 12 days.

The Level III unit is equipped to provide specialized care for babies born as early as 27 weeks, according to the release.

As the height of the Covid-19 brought on obstacles and changes in the general healthcare sector, Tuell said one of the biggest challenges for the NICU was navigating family visitations.

“We had to limit visitation, which is the same in any part of the healthcare that happened during (that time),” she said, “but the family is such an integral part of the care team for NICU patients, so it was hard for the families and us.”

Despite going through times of uncertainty and potential worries in the NICU on a regular basis, Tuell and Burshears are happy to rejoice with each graduate and their families and see the continued growth.

“... Caring for (these) patients is a privilege. The patients that we take care of are somebody’s everything,” Tuell said. “Babies (and) kids mean more to parents than anything in the world, so they entrust us to care for them. The positive outcome is when they leave our unit and get to go home healthy.”

“I think we recognize that everybody’s experience is unique in the NICU,” Burshears said. “Nobody plans to be in the NICU, … so it’s a long course for them; and so we learn in the NICU to celebrate the small things … and all the first milestones that they do in here.

“Celebrating is part of what we do as a NICU, (and) now we get to continue that when they’re (discharged) and they’re out growing and thriving ….”

Burshears finds events like the reunion “fuels” her and her colleagues, especially when getting the opportunity to see a NICU graduate and their families and hearing stories about what’s been happening in their lives since leaving the unit.

“It just drives home (that) we love what we do,” she said. “... To get to see (them) and have that reminder that we really are doing some great things, and really helping these families out and getting to see what that looks like later on … fulfills us ….”

Before the event began, Tuell said about 286 NICU graduates reserved a spot to attend.

Hawesville resident Christina Swihart said her experience with the unit was positive in regards to her son, Wyatt Swihart’s, three-week stay in 2019.

“He, at the time, was biologically my nephew. My brother and his biological mom were here with (Wyatt) and allowed me to be in the NICU with him,” she said. “... It’s a great NICU team here.”

Christina Swihart said Wyatt Swihart, who she gained custody of at 18 months and eventually adopted two years ago, was born 34 weeks preterm as his biological mother had preeclampsia.

Fast forward to Sunday, Christina Swihart finds coming back to the hospital under more positive circumstances brings a “proud” feeling considering her son’s accomplishments with occupational, physical and speech therapies.

“... Now we don’t have any milestones that he can’t meet,” she said.

Now 4 years old, Wyatt Swihart is doing “great,” according to Christina Swihart.

“He’s a chatterbox,” she said with a laugh. “... He’s very active, and happy and doing really well.”

One of the youngest NICU graduates in attendance was 5-month-old Nora Powers, accompanied by her mother, Heather Chappell of Owensboro.

Chappell said her sister, Holly Pate, a nurse who works in the NICU, “was able to kind of detect some things early” and was able to be alongside Chappell as one of the nurses in the delivery room.

“Everything was going good, but (Nora) took a big gulp of fluid as she was coming out,” Chappell said. “She was a little blue when she came out, not really crying ….”

Despite efforts to prevent Powers from going to the NICU, Chappell said her daughter was eventually admitted — though not for long.

“She was over there for about 12 hours,” Chappell said. “Thankfully, we were not a huge admission over there.”

Chappell applauded the staff’s efforts during her and her daughter’s stay.

“The nurses over there were great. (Nora) would not be here without them,” she said. “I can’t thank them enough for everything that they do.”

Chappell, who works at the hospital as a certified nursing assistant, said she’s seen the reunions in passing. Now, as an attendee, being able to attend the event marks a combination of victories.

“We miscarried before her, so I actually never thought that we’d get here,” she said. “After you miscarry, and then you have one and you still have that scary time — it’s like, ‘I’m going to be childless.’

“… It’s just so surreal to bring her here and then to be called ‘Mom’ — ... there’s no better feeling. … That is a blessing I cannot thank (the NICU) enough for.”