Ashley Yeater wasn’t about to miss this.
The high school junior from Sedalia stood in the parking lot at the Wonderscope Children’s Museum of Kansas City in Shawnee on Sunday, holding a children’s book in one hand and a picture in the other.
A picture of her taken 17 years ago at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Overland Park Regional Medical Center, where she was born at 25 weeks’ gestation and weighed just 1 pound, 11 ounces.
“I’m here to show other kids that there is hope,” said the teen, who now is her class secretary, is on the honor roll and has a part-time job.
Ashley was among hundreds of former patients and their families, along with doctors, nurses and other hospital staff who turned out for the annual Overland Park Regional Medical Center NICU reunion.
“This is a great opportunity for our parents to bring our babies back to see everyone,” said Margaret Meier, the hospital’s NICU director. “They want to show off their babies. They’re proud of how far they’ve come, and they want us to see how far they’ve come.”
“It’s very heartwarming to see some of the children who were very critically ill to now be walking around, some in high school and college.”
Marlene Soares, a NICU nurse who has been at the hospital for 28 years, said she looks forward to the reunion each year.
“We get to see the fruits of our labor,” she said. “They’re no longer babies. You see them running and talking, and you don’t see any tubes in them, which is so nice.”
The reunion had a carnival-like atmosphere, with activities for the children — inflatable bounce houses, face painters, a photo booth. Smiles and hugs abounded as families who once shared some of their most difficult times now greeted one another in celebration.
And the doctors, nurses and other medical staff were enjoying it just as much.
“I love this. It’s my favorite event all year,” said Chris Stapley, a neonatologist who treated many of those in attandance. “When we discharge them, they’re still little babies. What we’re all about is making happy, healthy big people.”
He spied Gabby Kneebone bouncing around in a pink ruffled dress.
“Oh, my gosh, she’s 3 already?” he said to her beaming parents, Jacque and Kelly Kneebone of Lenexa, as he kneeled to talk to the little girl. “She’s a doll.”
Gabby was born eight weeks premature, her parents said. Everything seemed fine until she was five days old and she developed severe liver problems. They were told that she probably wouldn’t make it.
But Gabby not only survived; she’s thriving.
“This is so awesome to be here,” said her mother, Jacque Kneebone. “I can’t tell you how good this feels. We’re just so thankful.”
Many of those attending brought a book to donate to families who have children in the hospital’s NICU. Some, including Ashley, wrote messages inside.
“God answering everyone’s prayers helped as well as the amazing help from the doctors and nurses. We made it through,” she wrote inside the cover of “The Little Mermaid.”
“Here I am now, just turned seventeen with a 4.0 grade point average.” She added: “My scar on my stomach is a part of who I am and my journey of surviving the outcomes. Never give up.”
Two-year-old twins Makenna and Mileigh attended the reunion with their moms, Janee Henderson and Michelle Watson of Gardner. Born at 25 weeks’ gestation and just 12 1/2 inches long, Makenna weighed 1 pound, 14 ounces and Mileigh weighed 1 pound, 7 ounces. They were in the hospital for months.
“You’d never know it, looking at them now,” Henderson said. “This is one of the ways we can reunite with these people. They will forever hold a special place in our lives.”
Neonatologist Katherine Schooley said she tries to attend the reunion every year.
“I come to see our kids,” Schooley said, after holding one baby and searching out another. “You remember these babies. You remember the parents and even some of the conversations with them so vividly. Then you look at their child and say, ‘Wow. Is this the baby I knew?’ It’s such a delight to see them now.”
Stacy and Brian King of Lee’s Summit showed off their blue-eyed daughter Briella, who will celebrate her first birthday in two weeks.
Born at 23 weeks’ gestation, Briella wasn’t expected to survive, her parents said. She was in the NICU for 120 days.
“They saved her,” Stacy King said. “She’s had no problems. She’s crawling, and she’s perfect.”
The Kings said they were thrilled to attend the reunion.
“I am so excited to be reunited with the doctors and nurses,” Stacy King said. “This is our family. They saved my daughter when everybody else gave up on her.”
Stapley stood nearby as family after family greeted him.
“I like my job and look forward to going to work, but there are hard days and sleepless nights,” he said. “There are a lot of tears shed in the NICU. So seeing these kids growing up and seeing the tears of joy being shed now is just wonderful.
“This is the icing on the cake.”