Brayden Smith arrived before the baby shower.
He was 28 weeks old when mother Larissa Smith’s water broke. The preterm labor, the cesarean section, Brayden’s 68-day stay at the Shawnee Mission Medical Center were all part of one terrifying deviation from the plan that all parents dream about: a flawless, uneventful pregnancy.
And yet, while the first few weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit were full of fear, as Smith and her husband, Dennis, spent more time at the hospital, the staff began to feel like a familiar presence.
They hooked the Smiths up with a preemie support group. They were there to comfort through “lots of crying,” Larissa Smith said. Mostly, Smith said, she started to trust that everything would be OK.
“It got easier because we got to know them, and we knew they were taking really good care of Brayden,” Smith said.
On Sunday afternoon, Larissa, Dennis and 7-month-year old Brayden reunited with Shawnee Mission NICU nurses who took care of them earlier this year at the eighth annual Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Celebration. Held at a park outside the Shawnee Mission Medical Center, the event allowed graduates of the NICU to catch up and celebrate fall with the staff that helped them through a difficult time.
“It really just started with the staff wanting to see the fruits of their labor,” said NICU head manager Emily Jansen about the origins of the event. “It’s rewarding to the staff, and I think families enjoy seeing the nurses that took care of them.”
On Sunday, young children in Halloween costumes visited activity booths, food stations and a petting zoo as medical staff caught up with parents and other NICU graduates. But the event wasn’t just for people who have left the NICU and not looked back.
Julie Weiner, associate director of the NICU, said she encouraged the parents of her current patients in the NICU to attend the event with their older children. It wasn’t just an opportunity to meet other parents who can offer support, she said, but a chance to see what the future might look like.
“For them to come out and see how great the babies look,” Weiner said. “They can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
On Sunday, a group of nurses took turns passing a healthy Brayden around. The group had kept in touch on Facebook, but this was the first time Larissa Smith had seen many of the Shawnee Mission medical staff since Brayden left the NICU in May.
To her right, was the doctor who delivered him. Across from her was the first nurse she interacted with. (Smith is planning her wedding.) She spotted a family across the way that she remembered staying across the hall from her, and vowed to say hi to them.
She gestured to the crowd.
“The sense of family you get being there,” she said, “was really great.”