As she thumbed through an album filled with pictures dating back to the early 1970s, Ann Skwarek shared memories with younger co-workers about her 40 years of working as a nurse in Advocate Lutheran General Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit.
Over time, the incubators shrunk, the monitors became more useful and the space for the tiny babies grew bigger -- from seven beds in the original "High Risk Nursery" to 54 beds today.
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"It was always challenging because we were at the forefront of neonatal medicine so you felt like you were learning all the time and progressing all the time," the Prospect Heights resident said. "Even to this day, there are changes every day."
Co-workers, old friends and family members stopped by the unit Thursday to celebrate Skwarek's upcoming retirement on Nov. 1. Among the attendees was the unit's clinical manager, Pam Jones-Gibson, who said Skwarek will be truly missed.
"She always stays calm, she's a team player and really focuses on the quality of care," Jones-Gibson said.
Skwarek started working in the unit just a few weeks after it opened its doors in 1972. She was a young mother looking for part-time work and the up-and-coming neonatal field interested her.
"There's a pure innocence about infants and their resiliency is amazing," she said. "They can be so, so sick and then turn around and be perfectly fine. I've seen many miracles, so that kept me going."
Many of those miracle patients and their families stay in touch with Skwarek and her colleagues -- at first through letters, nowadays through emails and pictures. Some, like a man now 30 years old who was extremely sick when he was born, even make emotional visits to see Skwarek and her co-workers.
"He's an ER doctor now," she said of the patient. "It was so unusual at the time that he survived because he was so critically ill. At the time, the resources and the technology were different from how they are today ... and the fact that he did survive and made it was by the grace of God, truly."
Of course, there are babies who don't make it. Skwarek said deaths are incredibly difficult to handle, but just like the technologies in the unit have changed, the support has too. There is now spiritual help, a bereavement counselor, and programs for families who have lost a child,
"We didn't have that in the beginning, not at all," she said. "We had a little bit of a knowledge of it. If a baby was dying we'd hold it; we knew that was the right thing to do. But now there's more. We take footprints; we take a lock of hair; we let the parents wash the baby -- anything they want to do to have their memories of their child."
Despite the ups and downs of the job, Skwarek said she truly enjoys forming deep bonds with families and knowing, through her experiences with them, that her work is meaningful.
"You have to love this profession, being a neonatal nurse, in order to be here as long as I have," she said. "It's just such a rewarding and fulfilling career that I couldn't actually see myself doing anything else. You come in every day knowing you could make a difference in someone's life."