Victoria neonatal unit’s reunion draws 80 families

The 30th reunion of Victoria General Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit has double meaning for Kristi Muralt, the unit’s first “veteran mom.”

It’s a chance to thank hospital staff and volunteers for treating her daughter Kiana, who weighed only one pound, 13 ounces. Now seven, Kiana looked healthy and happy Thursday as she ran around the patio area of Jeneece Place.

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The reunion, which attracted about 80 families this year, also gave Muralt an opportunity to reconnect with some of the families she has helped support during weekly visits to the intensive care unit.

“That’s really why I’m here,” Muralt said. “To be able to come back and see how big all of these little ones are getting.”

Muralt was the first volunteer in a program that started last fall, which brings former NICU parents back to the unit to answer questions from new parents experiencing it for the first time.

She said her own time there wasn’t easy. Kiana spent 101 days in the unit when she was born after 27.5 weeks of pregnancy.

“It was horrifying. I was supposed to have a baby in June and she came in March. I was totally unprepared,” Muralt said.

As a veteran parent, she tells parents that a good day can be followed by a full week of bad days, but that things can get better.

“That’s the one thing I tell all the parents: When things aren’t handed to you on a silver platter, not a single milestone goes uncherished,” Muralt said. “We’ve appreciated everything [Kiana has] done. So in that way, once you’re out of the unit, it’s a blessing to not take anything for granted.”

For Meghan and Stephen Rownd, the NICU was a bumpy ride. Their son Nathaniel, now 21Ú2 years old, was born three months early at 27 weeks.

Four days after his birth, he had a pulmonary hemorrhage. He later developed a necrotizing infection in his bowel and complications that required heart surgery. After finally going home, he had to come back when he developed a hernia.

“It was very scary — even thinking about it now is difficult,” Meghan Rownd said. “We could have lost him a few times.”

The challenges continue: Nathaniel was recently diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy and may also have autism. But the Rownds are grateful to have their child home.

“It is what it is. You just have to stay strong. And he’s an amazing little kid. He’s very resilient, so he’s definitely taught us a lot about family and strength,” Rownd said.

While the Rownds look forward to reconnecting with other parents they met in neonatal intensive care, they also come to the reunion to support the staff who helped them.

“They saved our kid’s life, many times.”

Victoria General Hospital became a home away from home for Angelia Matheson, like many other Islanders. The hospital hosts one of only three tertiary treatment centres in the province, so when complications meant Logan had to be delivered early at one pound and 10 ounces, she was flown there from Nanaimo.

The Mathesons maintain connections with the doctors and nurses who treated Logan, now 18 months.

“He’s a walking, talking, growing little monster and we love him to death,” Matheson said.

While the majority of families brought babies and toddlers to the event, there were also older NICU “graduates.”

Stefanie Barber, 30, was born with a birth defect called spina bifida, undergoing her first surgery within 24 hours of birth. She had surgery again within the week to treat a secondary condition, hydrocephalus.

Barber went on to become a wheelchair track and road racing athlete for Team B.C., and just started her own business. Through Success Ability, she offers businesses advice on ways to make their services more accessible.

For the nurses who attended the reunion, it’s fulfilling to reconnect with some of the families to whom they have grown attached. Many come on their days off, nurse educator Gillian Kozinka said.

“So it’s really important for us to see how the babies are growing and developing,” she said.

Registered nurse Sara Moore, who spent time in the NICU herself as a newborn, said the best part of her job is watching parents take their children home. But it’s a treat to see them again at the reunion.

“Coming to the NICU reunion is kind of like Christmas. We get to see our graduates and how far they’ve come. And see them with their families, healthy and happy.”

asmart@timescolonist.com

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