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NICU takes a toll on parents. Wall of Hope at OP medical center aims to ease burden

Photos on the Wall of Hope feature a look at patients now and when they were infants in the NICU.
Photos on the Wall of Hope feature a look at patients now and when they were infants in the NICU. Special to The Star

Worry, fear and lack of sleep can all take a toll on parents whose babies spend time in the newborn intensive care unit, or NICU, due to premature birth or other health problems. At Overland Park Regional Medical Center, this unit is making an extra effort to brighten those long days for parents with its Wall of Hope.

The month-old display features photos and stories from children who spent time in the neonatal unit four or five years ago and are now living happy lives at home.

Overland Park photographer Jessica Strom shot all the photos, which include images of the children during their NICU stays and from this year.

“When you’re in the NICU, all you see is the day to day, the struggles and the stress, and you’re just getting by moment to moment. It’s hard for parents to see life outside the NICU,” Strom said. “I want to give parents a reason to hold onto hope that one day the NICU will be behind them, and they can go on living the life they dreamed.”

She’s been taking photos of NICU babies at the hospital since 2011 and keeps in touch with many of the parents she meets. Strom does all her NICU photo work, including the wall, for free.

Though some of the children featured on the wall do have lingering health problems from their earlier struggles, the messages below the photos — written by their parents — are overwhelmingly positive.

One reads that the child “did not come out unscathed, and he has multiple disabilities impacting his life. However, THIS is what hope looks like. It’s not measured by perfection. … Most importantly, he’s here with us.”

In addition to the 12 photos, there’s a flower mural painted by Lenexa artist Joley Wiley that reflects the floral names of all the rooms in the neonatal unit.

The project came about through the non-profit Circle of Hope, made up of former NICU parents, in collaboration with Strom and social worker Tiffany Crabtree.

Crabtree said other hospitals have similar displays.

They’ve had the idea kicking around for about three years, but it all came together in the past six months.

“We tried to represent a diversity of experiences, meaning kids who were born at all different gestational ages that had various lengths of stay in the NICU and that are home now and dealing with the impact of the prematurity at various levels,” Crabtree said.

It also includes both girls and boys, single births and twins and various ethnic backgrounds.

“Our goal was when people look at this wall that somebody on this wall will hopefully represent their situation,” Crabtree said.

It’s been a hit so far with staff members and families.

“I actually heard one staff person say, ‘This is the classiest thing the NICU’s ever done.’ I’ve seen families crying,” Crabtree said.

“I heard this one mom — she was having a really bad day, just feeling like they’re never going to get out of here, and her husband just came and got her and stood her in front of the wall and said, ‘I want you to read these, because you’re having a bad day, but she’s going to get out of here.’”

For Holly Cartagena of Raymore, whose daughter Gabriella is currently a patient in the NICU, the Wall of Hope provides just that. It was the first thing she saw when she took a tour of the NICU, knowing she would have a premature baby.

“I couldn’t help but see all the tiny, tiny babies and read their stories and kind of compare how far along each baby was and by gestational age and how far along I thought I would be when I delivered,” Cartagena said. “It was pretty amazing how healthy and thriving each of them are now, so I think the name really does fit, because it gave me hope when I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Gabriella was born Aug. 27, five weeks premature.

“After I delivered, it kind of touched me again,” Cartagena said. “… All of the babies on the wall — most of them were even earlier than she was. So if they can all make it and have happy lives, healthy lives, then it kept me optimistic … that she would be just fine, too.”

Crabtree said they plan to update the wall with different patients every 12 to 18 months.