ROCKFORD — Sherry Block gave birth to her daughter, Nicole, after only 23 weeks of pregnancy. Nicole weighed a mere 1 pound, 3 ounces, small enough to fit into the palm of her father’s hand.
Sherry gave birth prematurely due to cervical insufficiency and Nicole was given a 25 percent chance to survive.
“She went down to 15 ounces,” Sherry said. “There were many problems.”
Nicole spent the next seven and a half months in the hospital, more time in the neointensive care unit than in her mother’s womb. For weeks at a time Nicole had more tubes and wires attached to her than limbs.
Sherry and her husband, Fred, said what made the daily hospital visits bearable was the around-the-clock care their daughter received and the support and encouragement they got from other parents who also had children in the NICU.
Sunday, Mercyhealth’s Javon Bea Hospital hosted the hospital’s 34th annual “Celebration of Miracles” at its Rockton Avenue Campus.
The Blocks attended the event with Nicole, now a healthy adult woman who is two weeks shy of her 30th birthday.
“She’s my miracle baby,” her mother said.
The Blocks, who attended the event for the first time in 25 years, were one of several hundred families reuniting with staff and other parents of “NICU graduates.”
Pam Allen, a Mercyhealth nurse manager, said the event is just as beneficial for the nursing staff as it is for the parents.
“We have some babies who are with us for just a few days or a few weeks, and we have babies who are with us for many, many months. So you really get to know each other and bond with each other.”
Allen added, “Most parents don’t have any idea that they are going to end up at NICU. It’s a really scary and unexpected time for them. So, we as a staff help them and support them through all of this.”
Allen said care for premature babies has evolved over the years from time when very little physical contact was permitted between a newborn and its parents to now when physical contact or “kangerooing” is encourage.
“Thirty years ago, it was very much hands off,” she said. “We didn’t want to stress them. We would only touch them at certain times.
“Now, we’ve learned that it is better for these babies to have that skin-to-skin touch with their families and to have their families much more involved.”
Anne Herkert, whose 29-year-old daughter, Stephanie, was born after 28 weeks and weighed 2 pounds, 3 ounces, said being denied the chance to hold her daughter was the most most stressful time during Stephanie’s three-month stay in the NICU.
“I remember it was over 50 days (since giving birth) and they let me hold her one time because I was like freaking out. They literally let me hold her just one time and that was it. And then we weren’t able to hold her for three weeks.”
The Blocks and Herkert spent many a day and night together in the NICU praying and hoping for the best for each other’s child and in the process formed a lifelong bond.
“Sherry and I just got to know each other through that experience in the NICU,” Herkert said. “I don’t remember the specifics of what we talked about, I just remember how she made me feel.”
The experience was so rewarding for Herkert that she now serves as Mercyhealth’s NICU family support coordinator and helps other parents with children in the hospital’s NICU.
“When you are talking to somebody who hasn’t been through the experience, they’re sympathetic but they don’t get it,” she said. “But when you are talking to somebody who has been in the experience, you know they get it.”
Not knowing if your child will live through the night is a trying time for any mother, but it’s no picnic for fathers either.
“It was a difficult experience,” said Fred Block, who was working and also running for a seat on Rockford City Council as a 9th Ward alderman.
“I would come here at 11 in the morning, in the afternoon, dinner time and at midnight because there was no one around. So you are in there by yourself and it’s quiet.”
He praised the nursing staff for treating Nicole and the other babies in the NICU “as if they were their own.” He also spoke highly of the support he got from his church.
“Our church at the time, Centennial United Methodist, sent cards up here and they would try to see her.
“In fact, our pastor came up and baptized Nicole. The nurses dressed her up in a doll outfit, she looked really beautiful.”
Mercyhealth has a 52-bed NICU and a six-bed Small Baby Unit with the NICU to treat babies born less than 27 weeks gestation or weighing less than 2.2 pounds. The Small Baby Unit is one of only two in the state.
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