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Battle for life over, premature babies stride toward normalcy

Paige Riddlehoover, of Winder, holds the hand of her son Luke, in the Gwinnett Medical Center Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Luke was born prematurely at 29 weeks, 2 days, weighing 2 lbs. and 14 oz. After six weeks and four days of NICU care, Luke was released at a more healthy weight of 4 lbs. 11 oz.

Paige Riddlehoover, of Winder, holds the hand of her son Luke, in the Gwinnett Medical Center Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Luke was born prematurely at 29 weeks, 2 days, weighing 2 lbs. and 14 oz. After six weeks and four days of NICU care, Luke was released at a more healthy weight of 4 lbs. 11 oz.

NICU AT A GLANCE

Gwinnett Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, cares for the county’s sickest, smallest patients. The unit — often pronounced “nick-you” — is quite literally a life-saver.

When a baby is born extremely early, extremely underweight or with extreme medical issues, it comes to this very special, very specialized section of the hospital’s Women’s Pavilion.

“Sometimes,” the NICU’s website says, “things do not go exactly as planned.”

As many as 1,000 babies come through the NICU each year, earning attention from board certified neonatologists, nurse practitioners, nurses, respiratory therapists and physical therapists. Parents spend day and night in the NICU, sometimes for weeks and months at a time — all while, in many cases, the aforementioned technology and their child’s complications prevent them from holding their newborn.

The 28-bed facility has been around for more than 20 years and offers state-of-the-art (and very expensive) technology: Things like incubators, cooling caps, and all breeds of respiratory machine help keep the newborns alive while staff gets them healthy and, hopefully, headed home.

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Radiology Technician Jeff Edson, left, and Registered Nurse Roomina Smith prepare to X-ray Neonatal Intensive Care Unit patient Nolan Cabrera at Gwinnett Medical Center’s NICU.

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Paige Riddlehoover, of Winder, holds her son Luke as registered nurse Lisa Smith places a head warmer on Luke in the Gwinnett Medical Center Neonatal Intensive Care unit. Luke was born prematurely, weighing 2 lbs. and 14 oz. After six weeks and four days of NICU care, Luke was released at a more healthy weight of 4 lbs. 11 oz.

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Paige Riddlehoover of Winder, interacts with her son Luke, 7 months, in their home in Winder. Luke was born to Randy and Paige Riddlehoover, prematurely at 29 weeks and 2 days, weighing 2 pounds, 14 ounces at birth on October 29, 2012. Luke, who now weighs 14 pounds, 3 ounces, spent 6 weeks and 4 days as a patient in the Neonatal Intensive Care unit at Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville.

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Nolan Cabrera, a baby born prematurely, weighing 2 lbs. and 4 oz. at birth, is held and comforted on the bare chest of his father, Jason Cabrera at the Gwinnett Medical Center Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Nolan, the son of Jason Cabrera and Jennifer Byrne of Buford, spent 10 weeks and 1 day in the NICU.

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Jason Cabrera hoists his son Nolan, 7 months, into the air while Jennifer Cabrera watches at their home in Hoschton. Nolan was born prematurely at 29 weeks, 1 day, to Jason and Jennifer, on October 31, 2012, weighing 2 pounds, 4 ounces. Nolan spent 10 weeks and 1 day as a patient in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville.

Hundreds of premature babies — preemies, as they’re called — spend time in Gwinnett Medical’s neonatal intensive care unit each year. Some are there for just a few days, some for months. Some never leave. Many have to fight even after being released.

The Daily Post followed two of those babies for several months after their births, documenting struggles, triumphs and everyday life in photographs. These are their stories.

Nolan Cabrera was born on Halloween 2012, more than two months before his Jan. 15 due date. He weighed two pounds and four ounces. His survival was already a miracle when, after only a few days on Earth, he had a massive pulmonary hemorrhage. His blood filled the incubator at Gwinnett Medical Center’s neonatal ICU.

Ninety percent of babies die within 10 minutes of such a hemorrhage, but Nolan did not. He survived, and after two months and 10 days of “pure hell,” went home to Hoschton with his parents.

He’s now not quite nine months old and, all things considered, doing well. But the NICU is not something you forget.

“I think about it all the time,” Nolan’s mother, Jennifer, said recently. “I constantly look at him and compare him to what he looked like when he was born, and everything he went through.”

Luke Riddlehoover has a similar story. He was born two days before Nolan, at just 29 weeks and two pounds, 14 ounces. He didn’t have the dramatic complications that Nolan did, but struggled with weight and survival. He went home to Winder on Dec. 14.

“He came out a fighter, just a little guy trying to survive in the big world,” his mother, Paige, said.

Nolan and Luke’s lives began in the NICU, with fear and tears, tubes, wires and constant beeping. They won’t remember their first — and hopefully greatest — battles to survive, but their parents will never forget them.

Jennifer Cabrera thinks of those days regularly.

“It’s a constant reminder of where he was to where he is now,” she said.