WINCHESTER — Twenty months ago, Carrie Harden wasn’t sure if her newborn son Jace was going to survive. On Sunday, she brought a healthy Jace to see his Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) doctors and to say, “Look how far we’ve come.”

Harden, who lives in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., was one of 985 former Winchester Medical Center NICU patients and their families who gathered at West Oaks Farm Market on Sunday afternoon to thank the NICU staff and to update them on their children’s lives.

During the event, Harden recounted being pregnant with twins, a boy and a girl. She was admitted to Winchester Medical Center on Nov. 2, 2017, for observation, when she was 24 weeks pregnant (a full-term pregnancy is 39 weeks). Because she had preeclampsia — a pregnancy complication that usually results in high blood pressure — the doctors determined an emergency C-section was needed. On Nov. 7, she gave birth to Emma and Jace, both of whom were swiftly transported to the NICU. Emma died two days after she was born.

“People from NICU tried to prepare me,” Harden said. “There was a very high chance that neither one of them would have survived.”

Jace stayed in the NICU until April 19, 2018. He was readmitted on April 24, 2018, and transferred to the NICU at West Virginia University Medicine Children’s Hospital in Morgantown on May 15, 2018. Jace was released in August.

Harden said her son no longer needs medical oxygen, but he still uses a feeding tube. She said she is happy with how far he has come. She said doctors Edward Lee and Theresa Clawson were “lifesavers” during her son’s stay at Winchester’s NICU.

Harden said she grew extremely close with both doctors, who were there to help her cope during a challenging time. She called them “absolutely amazing.”

WMC’s NICU opened in 1994 with six beds. It now has 30 beds (21 single, three twin and one triplet room). Staff at the event said that NICU reunions have been held as long as the NICU itself has been open.

The NICU admits more than 300 babies each year, with stays ranging from two days to three months. The NICU’s patient care team includes board certified neonatologists, neonatal nurse practitioners, registered nurses, respiratory therapists, occupational and physical therapists, dietitians, pharmacists and social workers.

“We take gestation of 23 weeks up through full term,” said NICU nurse Courtney Rose. “With that, we offer services such as total body cooling — that is when you have a term baby that has had a brain injury, [the cooling] slows everything down to help preserve brain and body function.”

Rose said there are 45 nurses who work in NICU. The typical staffing ratio is three babies to one nurse.

“For me, the most rewarding aspect is seeing a sick, 2-pound baby with parents afraid to touch the baby progress to a healthy, 5-pound baby that the parents are capable of taking care of and gets discharged to home,” Rose said.

She said one of the more challenging aspects is dealing with the emotional attachment to patients, especially if there is a negative outcome.

“You get emotionally involved with these families, caring for them over a long period of time,” Rose said.

One of the mothers Rose helped was Shenandoah County resident Kristen Chapman, whose daughter Emma, now 4½, stayed in the NICU for a week.

“When my water broke they noticed I had meconium in my water,” Chapman said. “It’s the first bowel movement that the baby has. That meant the baby already had a bowel movement while in utero.”

Her daughter had difficulty breathing when she was born since she had ingested meconium. Chapman got to hold her daughter for about 2 seconds before she was rushed to the NICU. Emma was given continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy to help her breath and made significant improvement within 24 hours. She remained in the NICU for antibiotics and observation.

“The staff was amazing,” Chapman said. “They made sure we were very well-informed on what we needed to do. After I was released, we set up camp in the NICU for the remainder of the time. They were very accommodating to us. I struggled with nursing, and Courtney (Rose) was a godsend. She helped give me pointers and tips with breastfeeding and what to prepare for when we got home. I’m very, very thankful for the NICU.”

Jose Gonzaga and Karen Faria are also thankful to the NICU for saving their first child, Karina, in July of 2014. Gonzaga said their daughter was born at 37 weeks. Prior to the birth, Faria’s body “was kind of going haywire” and that her blood pressure was going up.

When Karina was born, she weighed 2 pounds, 5 ounces and was 14-inches long. Gonzaga said she was so small that he was at first scared to hold her.

“This was our first child, she’s a preemie,” Gonzaga said. “We have no idea what’s going to happen. We have no idea what’s going on. So we spend 40 days in the NICU and the people in the NICU became family. I’m sensing they knew the stress in my face. They calmed me down. They assured us and told us what is going on.”

— Contact Josh Janney at jjanney@winchesterstar.com

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