After a 12-hour overnight shift, Martia Lopez volunteered Saturday morning at the registration table of the Doctors Hospital at Renaissance neonatal intensive care unit’s reunion.
Lopez has been a neonatal intensive care unit nurse at DHR for 15 years, and planned to come back to the hospital later in the evening for another work shift.
But Lopez said it was important for her to be at the reunion.
“I feel really happy because it shows that we fulfilled our mission,” Lopez, who cares for babies born prematurely, said. “We took care of those miracle babies, and it is a blessing to see how they were so tiny before, and are now so big.”
For the 11th year, DHR invited the families of patients of the past year, who they call “graduates,” back to the hospital for fall-themed festivities and food, and were encouraged to dress their children in costumes. Though the event is organized for patients of the last year, families of past reunions continue to join the celebration. Over 2,500 people came last year.
Lopez, 50, does not have children, but said that she treats each patient as her own and is glad that there is an opportunity to reunite with all of her babies.
“When I care for them, I feel like they (the babies) are also mine,” Lopez said. “I don’t have children, so I am happy that I get to care for these children because I feel like they are mine. So, today is really a reunion day.”
Giggling children, who donned costumes that ranged from Wonder Woman to Scooby-Doo, were seen toddling around the lot, holding the hands of their parents. Group photos were taken, and before the pictures, parents handed their children over to the nurses to carry.
Nurses and DHR staff were in charge of running the event. Positioned as greeters at the entrance, or serving popcorn to attendees that morning, they were serving their community in a different way than usual.
The DHR NICU — neonatal intensive care unit — received about 1,100 babies in the past year, and with a staff of about 130, the hospital’s NICU director, Alan Esmilla said that the reunion is a highly anticipated event, for both the families and staff.
“Everyone looks forward to this event,” Esmilla said. “This is when the nurses and families get back together. When they are in the unit, it is very stressful, but now they get to have fun together and celebrate life.
“It’s really great to see them come back. We see babies who were born 15 weeks early, who are now walking and talking.”
Esmilla, who has been the DHR NICU director for seven years, was at the entrance greeting families. There, he received a big hug from 3-year-old Fabian Ontiveros, who was a patient at the unit for the first 130 days of his life.
Fabian was born four months before his due date, making him a micro preemie — the earliest classification of prematurity, defined as a baby born weighing less than 1 pound and 12 ounces, or before 26 weeks of pregnancy. As an infant, Fabian went through three surgeries, two of which took place during his time at the NICU.
“We went through a lot of ups and downs,” Fabian’s mother, Mirella Ontiveros said. “There were several times when we thought that we lost him, but they (DHR NICU staff) told us to have faith — to have a lot of faith, power and prayer.
“They (NICU staff) became family to us, we were there for 130 days, so we got to know the nurses.”
Fabian’s father, Jaime Ontiveros, said that getting to know his son’s nurses helped alleviate the stress they were going through during that time.
“We were at ease knowing that they were taking care of him while I was at work. I am in awe with how all of the doctors and nurses cared for him,” he said.
He added that he and his wife are friends with most of the staff on Facebook, and post photos of Fabian regularly so that they can see him grow up, too.
DHR Speech Pathologist Jacklin Cantu also embraced Fabian when she saw him. Though he was her patient over three years ago, she still remembers the details of his case.
“This event is my favorite time of the year because we see babies at 36 weeks or 37 going home, and then we get to see them again after a year of life,” Cantu said, who has held her position for five years. “Fabian is about to be 4, so I have seen him fully progress from a 23-weeker to a 4-year-old — it brings me so much joy to see all my babies get so much bigger and stronger.”
Fabian has a chicken coop at home, and one of his favorite things to do is feed them. His favorite food is pizza, and when he grows up, he wants to be the Flash.