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Preemies and families reunite with hospitals neonatal staff
Michael and Vanessa Christy play Saturday with their son, Colton, during the Northeast Georgia Medical Center Neonatal Intensive Care Unit reunion. - photo by Tom Reed | The Times

Life is a precious gift, and the families of babies born prematurely know particularly well that it should not be taken for granted.

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Northeast Georgia Medical Center brought together babies, families, and hospital staff Saturday to celebrate the progress and accomplishments of their preemie patients at a reunion party.

Baby patients who were born 32 weeks or earlier and had been in the NICU for two or more weeks were invited to come with their families for food, clowns, games, photo booths and face-painting, as well as catching up with others who could relate to their journey.

Nurses, respiratory therapists, nurse practitioners and other volunteers involved with the NICU greeted families with hugs and smiles throughout the day. Physicians who worked with the babies also took time out of their rotation schedule to visit with former patients.

Cindy Sullivan, a NICU nurse at Northeast Georgia Medical Center for the past 11 years, said she saw plenty of familiar faces.

“There’s been lots of babies I remember taking care of. Even years later, we’ll remember each other from their time with us,” she said.

Perhaps their most rewarding part of the day was being able to see preemie patients that had once been so small grow into the children they are today.

“It really does our hearts good to see the little babies that were born so tiny so much bigger and grown-up now, running around,” Sullivan said. “It really makes us feel good.”

Two of those babies included Sasha and Casey Kicklighter, both born at 24 weeks but now ages 4 years and 10 months, respectively. Parents Chris and Shatoria Kicklighter said that after having two preemies and spending three months in the Medical Center NICU with both, the people they met during their babies’ stays have become like family.

“This is our second home and our second family,” Shatoria Kicklighter said of the staff and other families surrounding her. “The same nurses that took care of Sasha when she was here took care of Casey, too, so we’ve kept the same family.”

Now that both Sasha and Casey have received the go-ahead from their pediatrician, the Kicklighters have been able to go on family vacation to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and attend the NICU reunion party.

“It feels good to say we made it, not once, but twice,” she said.

Although it has been several years since the last reunion party at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, the staff is hoping to make this a yearly tradition.

“We had a lot of requests for a reunion by nurses and families, so they just got together and made this happen,” said Janessa Canals-Alonso, the NICU nurse manager.

The Unit Practice Council at the hospital began planning and organizing for the event in April. Nurses, hospital administrators and the hospital’s auxiliary department came together to make sure that the reunion party would be a time of celebration for everyone involved.

Canals-Alonso echoed the sentiments of the Kicklighters and many others at the party that once someone has spent time in the NICU, they become family.

“The nurses are there for parents during the most difficult time of their life and are also there to celebrate all the great steps their babies take, such as breathing on their own, eating from a bottle, tolerating their temperature, gaining weight and the best reward of all, going home with their mommy and daddy,” Canals-Alonso said.

“Because of this, NICU nurses become a big part of our patients’ family.”