Kaylynne and Raelynne Westlund toddle around the courtyard at the Saint Marys Campus of Mayo Clinic Hospital — Rochester, wearing identical floral print jumpers and keeping their parents on their toes. All around them, similar scenes play out among recent graduates of Mayo Clinic's Neonatal Intensive Care Units who have gathered for the annual NICU Family Reunion.
"It's fun to look back," the twins' mother, Shanna, tells us of the 10 days her family spent in the hospital after Kaylynne and Raelynne arrived six weeks before their due date. "I think, 'How did I survive?'" Then she looks around at the crowd gathered and answers her own question. "I survived because of all these nurses and doctors and lactation consultants." While the Westlunds aren't bound by blood to the families around them, they share a deep connection forged through shared experience. "It's nice to be here because everyone understands," Shanna says.
Ashley and Jason Waege agree. Their daughter, Emmalynn, was born with a congenital diaphragmatic hernia and rushed to Mayo Clinic by air ambulance immediately after her birth in La Crosse, Wisconsin. "It was a complete shock to us and absolutely terrifying," Ashley says of that day and the ones that followed. Emmalynn would have three surgeries in her first weeks of life. And while she won't remember those procedures or her five-week hospital stay, her parents will never forget. "It was traumatic," Ashley says.
Like the Westlunds, the Waeges say enduring that trauma was made easier by the NICU staff. "You think they're there for your child, but they really care about your whole family," Jason tells us. "The staff were fantastic. They eased our minds a lot. Under the circumstances, I enjoyed our time in the hospital." Ashley agrees. "At the most difficult time in our lives we believe God brought all the wonderful staff and families into our lives, which helped us so much," she says. "It's shocking to me how many people remember us. You realize how important the family connections are to staff, too."
Those connections were the inspiration for launching the NICU family reunion 35 years ago. "We thought it would be really nice to see kids who have grown and done well come back," Peggy Miller tells us. Miller, a patient care assistant, helped start the reunion and has been a part of it ever since. And while some things have changed over the years — Miller and her colleagues used to take invitations home to address by hand — the special bonds that develop between families and staff have remained the same. Which is why hundreds of people, both former patients and NICU staff, attend the event each year.
"It's challenging but also a privilege to take care of babies and families during crisis moments," Chris Collura, M.D., a pediatrician and neonatologist, tells us. That's what makes it such a joy for Dr. Collura and others to see those children — and their families — thriving at the reunion. "To see such wonderful stories play out here in the courtyard of Saint Marys is very gratifying to all of us who take care of these babies," he tells us. "It's a great inspiration to keep doing what we do."
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