TALLMADGE: It was a reunion to top all family get-togethers.
More than 1,000 children who have survived and thrived since they began their lives in the neonatal intensive care unit at Akron Children’s Hospital and their families were reunited Sunday at Summit County Fairgrounds with the dedicated doctors, nurses and other support staff who helped give them a shot at life.
Some of the parents said they spent months and even years at the hospital after their children were born prematurely or with severe medical issues. Long enough, many said, that the staff became as close to them as family.
Friends Brent and Miranda Daily of Caldwell in Noble County and Sara and Chris Plant of Doylestown paused to have their pictures taken with retired licensed practical nurse Marianne Elliot of Cuyahoga Falls. Elliot couldn’t hold back her tears upon seeing 11-month-old Tailyn Daily, who was born with a cleft palate and lip, and Rebekka Plant, who needed open heart surgery to close holes in her heart when she was a month old.
Their mothers met while the children shared a room in the NICU. The girls were born two days apart.
Miranda Daily said she remembered Elliot the minute she saw her in the crowd.
“She was so sweet and took such good care of us and our neighbor,” she said.
The families were wearing T-shirts honoring a child in the room next to their girls who did not survive.
The NICU has touched thousands of lives in the past two decades. Last year alone, the unit on the main campus and other special care nurseries run by Children’s throughout Northeast Ohio cared for more than 1,700 ill and premature babies.
First in 20 years
The reunion, the first in 20 years that all NICU graduates were invited to attend, was organized to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the March of Dimes NICU Family Support program, said Kristie Stefan, who coordinated the event with Children’s NICU registered nurse Colette Benincasa.
Stefan, a March of Dimes NICU family support specialist from Wadsworth, said the program provides emotional, informative and educational help for families who have children in the NICU.
Stefan said she became involved with the March of Dimes program when her twin daughters were born 10 weeks early. Only one of her daughters survived their rough start eight years ago.
Four years ago, the March of Dimes offered her a job after she was as a parent volunteer for the organization.
“It was a perfect fit,” she said.
Andrea Snyder of Youngstown attended the event to be reunited with Stefan, who she said was supportive and helpful while her 21-month-old daughter, Coraline Wakefield, spent a month at the Akron hospital. Coraline, who weighed 1 pound 10 ounces at birth, is one of the triplets that Snyder, a psychologist, gave birth to 14 weeks prematurely in Youngstown’s St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.
Andrea Snyder said she and her husband, Tom Wakefield, a professor at Youngstown State University, will be forever grateful for the support Stefan gave the family when Coraline was rushed to Akron Children’s a month after she was allowed to go home.
“We had a lot of support here and Kristie, from the March of Dimes, was very helpful. When Coraline came home, Kristie sent gifts to the other two babies, too,” Snyder said.
During Sunday’s event, more than 100 volunteers staffed stations in the arena with games that were appropriate for children with special needs, hospital spokeswoman Holly Pupino said.
Designed by therapists
“Most of our volunteers who are here today are physical and occupational therapists who designed the stations and know what are appropriate activities the children can participate in,” she said.
Free food, drinks and games of chance, such as a fishing pond and ring toss, kept little ones engaged as a disc jockey played popular hits. Elmo, Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Akron Aeros mascot Orbit took turns dancing with the youngsters and posing for photos.
A “hair salon” where volunteer “stylists” sprayed hair temporary bright purple, green, yellow and red was a popular venue with older kids.
Emily Schmidlin of Kent, who is in graduate school at Kent State University, was accompanied by her mother, Jeanne Schmidlin, and her therapy dog, Lukodi, a yellow Labrador retriever mix. The pair happily waited as volunteers turned Emily’s short brown hair purple, her favorite color.
Jeanne Schmidlin said her daughter, who has cerebral palsy, was in the NICU for 10 weeks 25 years ago after she was born 14 weeks prematurely at Akron City Hospital.
Emily Schmidlin, who is studying to be a clinical mental health counselor, said she has been to every state in the union and 37 countries outside the United States.
“Paris is pretty cool,” Emily Schmidlin said. “But there’s no place I don’t like.”
Her mother said neither Emily’s medical condition nor her wheelchair has slowed her down.
Travis Denholm, who at 22 has beat the odds after spending the first two years of his life in the NICU, just wanted to dance after he heard the beat of the music from the stage.
But Denholm and his mother, Doreen Vernotzy, both of Akron, were also anxious to see Dr. Anand Kantak, director of neonatology at the hospital. It was the first reunion between the young man and the doctor who helped save his live after he was born 14 weeks premature in 1990, weighing 1 pound 11½ ounces.
“I can’t even believe I’m standing here with him,” she said.
“The doctors said he wouldn’t live,” said Vernotzy, who carried the tiny clothes she made for his christening.
Denholm turned to his mother. “You never told me that,” he said.
“I wanted to live, man,” he said, pumping his fists in the air.
Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or firstname.lastname@example.org.