Wheaton event reunites neonatal ICU nurses and former patients they've known since birth
The nurses at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Winfield see some of the tiniest and sickest babies into the world.
But their work doesn't stop there. They develop relationships with the children and families that last a lifetime.
On Sunday, more than 100 former patients and their families gathered at the Danada House in Wheaton for a reunion with neonatologists, nurses, staff members and other parents.
It's an annual event, this year featuring a Hawaiian luau theme, with everybody wearing leis and music from the islands blaring through the banquet hall.
There was a lot to celebrate. Children whose lives hung in the balance at birth not only survived, but in many cases are thriving.
Like Peter Dioro, a 15-year-old sophomore at Naperville North High School who hopes to be a lawyer.
His mother, Lisa Dioro of Naperville, said Peter needed 24-hour nursing care at one point. He didn't eat until he was 10, and needed a speech therapist to get him to that point.
Today, "You would not know that he had any issues," she said. "(The nurses) were very supportive. They loved him like he was their own."
Being at Danada Sunday was a reminder that they made it through that really difficult time, she said.
Staff nurse and reunion coordinator Tina Mitchell said it is amazing to see how the children have thrived. "I never thought they would be here, some of them," she said.
The NICU nurses are lucky, said Bethany Lazzara, a clinical shift coordinator who has worked in the unit for 16 years.
"We get to see our patients progress through their life," she said. "Most nurses get to see a small, little part of someone's life. We get to watch their whole life span."
Naperville resident Tracy Petersen was there with her 8-year-old daughter, Sophia Pope, who spent 16 months in the NICU and 774 days in the hospital before she came home.
Sophia was born 15 weeks early, weighing a pound and a half. At eight days old, she had heart surgery. At four months old, she had two hernias repaired. She is still on a ventilator almost full time.
Sophia, who attends Owen Elementary School in Naperville, also has ongoing medical issues, including Goodpasture Syndrome, an autoimmune disease affecting the lungs and kidneys.
"She has been through the wringer, this child," Petersen said.
But for Sophia, Sunday's reunion was another chance to spend time with her "Auntie Steph," nurse Stephanie Kaphengst.
"They were like a second family to us," Petersen said of the NICU nurses.
Kaphengst has seen the NICU from both sides. Her 13-year-old son Jimmy was born six weeks early and was also on hand Sunday. He received treatment in the unit.
"Next to Christmas, it's my second favorite day of the year," she said.