Photographer gives parents of preemie infants priceless gift: photo sessions in the NICU

When she was pregnant, Alicia Chidsey didn’t read up on what to expect with a premature baby.

“You assume it’s not going to be you,” says Chidsey, who lives in Gardner with her husband, Nick.

But in August, Chidsey’s daughter, Nora, was born six weeks early. Doctors sent her to the neonatal intensive care unit at Shawnee Mission Medical Center, where Nora was hooked up to tubes that helped her eat and monitors that tracked her heartbeat and oxygen levels. An incubator warmed her tiny body like an artificial womb.

Nothing was normal about that first month of Nora’s life. The Chidseys couldn’t hold their daughter or take her home with them. They had to trust doctors, nurses and machines to keep their fragile baby alive.

“It was the most grueling experience of our lives,” Chidsey says.

A bright spot during that difficult time came when the Chidseys posed for a free photo session with Jessica Strom, an Overland Park photographer who volunteers to take photos for families in the NICUs at Overland Park Regional Medical Center and Shawnee Mission Medical Center.

Before the session, Chidsey put on a pink cardigan and carefully dressed Nora in a polka-dot Onesie with “Pretty” on the front. For the photos, the new mom sat in a blue chair with her tiny daughter against her chest.

Her smile was real when she beamed at her husband. For the first time, “I felt like we were a family,” Chidsey says.

Over the last two years, Strom, who specializes in maternity and baby photos, has volunteered to take photos of NICU babies for about 30 families.

The families get to keep precious images that document the beginning of their child’s life. What Strom gets in return is just as meaningful.

Strom, 31, grew up in Alberta in a family of photographers.

Her grandfather and her father loved taking photos, and her dad was always geeking out over a new camera.

In 2005, Strom flew home to Canada to introduce her fiance (now husband), Daniel, to her family. After dinner, her dad insisted that they pose for a group photo so he could try out his new film camera.

Strom didn’t think that was necessary — it was just dinner, after all — but she gave in, and took a few photos on her digital camera, too.

Two weeks later, her dad died suddenly from a blood clot. The photos from that night are the only images Strom has of her husband and her father together.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen in life,” she says. That’s why she’s so passionate about photographing families.

Over the past few years, Strom has shifted her photography business away from weddings, senior photos and kids portraits (“I don’t understand teenagers,” she says, and toddlers always run away). Now she specializes in a very small but important window in life: pregnancy, birth and infancy.

In 2011, Strom started to volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a nonprofit organization that provides free photography sessions to families dealing with the death of their baby.

Those photo shoots were “really, really tough,” Strom says. “By the third session, I realized I couldn’t emotionally commit to it.”

Her volunteer coordinator asked Strom if she’d be interested in photographing one more family: This one was taking their 2-month-old son home from the NICU.

Strom agreed — and she connected with the baby and his family immediately.

“I wanted to give the parents something beautiful to hold on to,” she says.

After that, she came up with her own volunteer program, giving free photo sessions to families with premature babies who had to stay in the NICU for more than a month. She left postcards with her photos and contact info in the family rooms at Overland Park Regional Medical Center and Shawnee Mission Medical Center. Nurses and parents helped spread the word.

Strom quickly learned NICU photography etiquette. When she photographs premature babies, she doesn’t use a flash because it would hurt their developing eyes. She doesn’t pose the babies, or use props, or remove monitors or feeding tubes to get a better shot.

She washes her hands and cancels sessions if she feels even the slightest bit sick. Babies in the NICU usually have compromised immune systems, so she doesn’t touch or hold them, even if a parent offers.

A maternity or newborn photo session with Strom usually costs between $600 and $800. She gives NICU families the same package for free.

Several times, Strom has given free NICU sessions to moms who went into labor before they could get in for a scheduled maternity photo session.

That was the case with Stacy King, whose daughter Briella was born four months early. Doctors didn’t expect the 1-pound baby to survive. At 23 1/2 weeks old, her lungs and brain weren’t fully developed, and her eyes were still fused shut.

King says her doctor told her “to enjoy the minutes” she had with her daughter. But she and her husband, Brian, wouldn’t give up on Briella: They transferred her from a hospital near their Lee’s Summit home to Overland Park Regional Medical Center and spent the next four months camped out in the NICU.

Stacy King was grateful for every day with her daughter, but life in the NICU was emotionally devastating and socially isolating.

“When you leave the NICU, you see the new moms wheeled out holding balloons and presents,” she says, “and you wonder if that will happen to you.”

Families in the NICU can’t have children or groups of family members visit because of the risk of spreading germs to the babies. They don’t get traditional newborn pictures that they can share with friends on Facebook. But life in the NICU isn’t all bad.

Over the course of several visits, Strom captured Briella looking out the window at her first snow. She was there with her camera when Briella took her first breath of fresh air outside and when she met her older sister, Aubrey, for the first time.

“She became like family,” Stacy King says of Strom. The photos became keepsakes.

“I would be so sad if I didn’t have those,” King says. “They’re full of love and hope and joy.”

They’re framed and hung on the walls of Briella’s room. The tiny girl who wasn’t expected to survive her first minutes is now 14 months old.

Strom sees every baby as a miracle. Her biggest dream is to have one of her own — and her biggest struggle is not being able to.

Strom and her husband have struggled with unexplained infertility for eight years. In that time span, she has endured countless doctor’s visits, blood draws, sonograms and acupuncture sessions.

Last year, the Stroms got close to adopting — so close that they bought a crib and a dresser — but their plans fell through.

Strom says she understands the grief that families in the NICU are experiencing.

“Things aren’t the way you planned on them being,” Strom says. “They know I understand what these babies mean to them.”

She calls the babies she documents “my babies” and oohs and aahs over their photos like a proud mom.

It’s easy to see why the connections she forms with her NICU families are instant and deep: They help her by sharing their joy. She helps them by capturing and reflecting it back.

Sam Nelson’s son, Joey, was in the NICU for more than five weeks after he was delivered by emergency C-section.

“I had a midwife, and I expected a calm, natural birth,” says Nelson, who lives in Kansas City. She had also expected to do a maternity photo session with Strom. But because of the premature birth, she had to cancel.

Strom volunteered to take free photos in the NICU, and Nelson accepted. The day of the photo session was a good one — Joey smiled a lot and seemed to be improving — but a few days later, Nelson gave in to the stress and broke down.

“I left the NICU that day bawling,” Nelson says. “It’s hard to see your baby in an (incubator). To have rules about where and when to hold your baby.”

Nelson poured her heart out on her blog that night. An hour later, Strom sent Nelson a photo of Joey bundled in his mother’s arms, a huge smile on his tiny face.

Nelson cries when she remembers seeing the photo for the first time.

“I needed that so bad,” she says. “That picked me up from the deepest, darkest spot I was at.”

Today Joey is a healthy 9-month-old. But not all babies make it out of the NICU.

In October, a boy whom Strom photographed several times over 2 1/2 years died. Strom says that this “mighty” boy spent his whole life in the hospital. She was there for his baptism and birthdays, so saying goodbye was one of the hardest things she has had to do. Afterward, she took a break from NICU photo sessions for two months.

“It was hard,” she says. “I needed time to grieve.”

Strom is using the break to work on plans for a nonprofit that will create a network of photographers willing to volunteer in NICUs at hospitals all over the metro. That way, more families would have access to photo sessions that, because of mounting medical bills, they might not be able to afford.

When you can’t work because your baby is in the NICU, getting free photos is a huge gift, says Pam Melo of Shawnee, whose daughter, Helena, was born three months early last year.

The photos themselves are priceless, Melo says, “especially to us.”

“I thought (Strom) was an angel to give us this gift.”

Helena lived for seven months, and most of that time was spent in the NICU. Despite the tubes, the monitors and the IVs, Melo says she and her husband, Rudy, shared beautiful moments with their daughter, a calm and cuddly baby with surreal blue eyes that floored everyone who met her.

“This baby, she was an angel,” Strom says. “I knew it. Her eyes just sparkled.”

Melo loved staring into her baby’s eyes.

“I felt like she was looking into my soul,” Melo says. “Like, she knew something, and she was trying to tell us.”

Strom’s photos capture Helena’s gaze perfectly, Melo says. She loves to look at them.

Alicia Chidsey, Nora’s mom, also describes Strom as an angel.

“She shares her joy with all the families she touches,” Chidsey says. “She’s one of those lucky people on this Earth who is truly doing her heart’s desire.”

Strom plans to return to her NICU volunteer work in the new year. She has another hope for 2014: Recently, she photographed a surrogate birth and was so moved by the experience that she and Daniel are investigating surrogacy for themselves.

Strom says being around babies fills her with peace and hope.

“You’d think it would be hard to be around all of these babies when I can’t have my own,” Strom says, “but actually they help heal me.”

As for Melo, she is pregnant with another girl. Her baby is due in February — and she already has a photographer lined up.