Robert Younkin has a lot of important friends and they all wanted him to smile on going-home day.
But with the media and their cameras, the public relations people and the usual crew of nurses and doctors all crowding his room at Akron Children’s Hospital, all he could do was scowl.
They were there to celebrate the toughness that helped him survive the first 16 months of life in the hospital and the fact that he could finally go home.
At least 20 people would like to take credit for inspiring the grin that finally came, but Kelly Powell, a nurse, certainly played a big role. For more than a year, she has been assigned to tend to Robert’s needs, both medical and social. Smiles were a big part of that.
She said Robert’s stint in the hospital is the longest she knows of, but she refused to say it’s sad to see him leave.
“We’re excited for him in the next chapter of his life,” she said.
Robert was born Feb. 2, 2012, but his story began about a day before that when parents Amber and Dana, long distance truckers, were on the road.
“I went into labor on the way back to Ohio,” Amber said. “We were in Washington state. When we got to Nebraska I knew I was in labor.”
She was in her 24th week.
Robert — his closest friends call him Bobby — was born at Akron General Medical Center. Within a day he was in the neonatal intensive care unit at Children’s.
He weighed 1.4 pounds and had respiratory problems right away. A yeast infection brought lung problems that persist to this day. He went home with a tracheal tube and portable ventilator that Mom and Dad have been trained to tend.
He can’t sit up or crawl. Sometimes he gets a taste of food, but most of his nutrition comes through an additional tube.
If he has problems breathing, especially at night, an alarm goes off.
His parents know all about challenges.
They met 10 years ago as truckers. It wasn’t long before they were married and trying to have children.
“We kind of gave up,” she explained. “We tried for 10 years. We gave up.”
Then Robert came.
The problems kept piling up after he was born.
The trucking company fired Amber and Dana while Robert was in the hospital, tended every day by his mother.
“They weren’t very kind about it,” she said.
They tried COBRA, the kind of health insurance that serves people after they lose jobs. They soon found they couldn’t afford it.
Robert’s bills are being paid by Medicaid.
Long distance trucking is out for the Younkins now.
“To make any money, you got to not be at home,” Amber explained.
Dana is doing short-distance trucking on an as-needed basis carrying “fracking” water for the gas-drilling industry.
Inspired by the people caring for Robert, Amber wants to study nursing when things settle down.
But the Younkin home in Portage County’s North Benton is far from settled.
Dad was there Tuesday getting ready for the mobile intensive care unit (you may call it an ambulance) to bring Robert for his first day home.
Preparations include making everything as clean as possible and installing a furnace with special filters to keep the air clean.
Dr. Jennifer Grow expects Robert to be fine at home.
She said a device called a neurally adjusted ventilatory assist or NAVA was critical in letting Robert grow, develop and eventually come home. The machine learned from his brain exactly when he needed help from the ventilator and helped his body and the machine coordinate. It wasn’t long ago when children like Robert didn’t have that advantage.
She said the prognosis for Robert is good.
“He will be like a lot of other children, pulling his mother’s cupboard apart,” she said. “There is no reason he won’t be able to go to school at a normal age.”
Play and what it means to a child’s development will be important at home just as it has been at Children’s.
When kids are kept for a long time, medical experts noticed the children came to know their caregivers.
That’s why parents have the Ronald McDonald house, so they can spend almost every day with the babies.
It’s also why nurses like Powell, doctors like Grow and other helpers are assigned to specific children and care for them every working day. In some cases, the children won’t eat for a strange nurse.
Grow said unfamiliarity might be why Robert was so cranky when the reporters and other strangers showed up.
The bad mood didn’t last long as adults got in his face, chattering baby talk, waving their arms around and making silly faces.
Grow, standing just a few feet away, rejected the idea she might be sad to see her young friend leave.
“It’s never bittersweet to see them leave,” she said. “It’s always sweet when they go home.”
Minutes later, she was making faces, too.
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.