Nearly 27 years ago, Katelyn Thomas was born at Howard County General Hospital, weighing 1 pound, 6 ounces.
Born at 26 weeks old, Thomas spent 100 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the hospital in Columbia.
Her mother, Susan Thomas, said she “was blissfully ignorant” when her daughter — who was her first born — was in the NICU.
“I never thought for a moment that she wouldn't be perfectly fine,” Susan Thomas said.
Of Susan Thomas’ four children, her youngest Nathan, and Katelyn were born premature.
“I can imagine it’s scary as a parent” to have a child in the NICU, Katelyn Thomas said.
Clutching a framed photograph of herself from her days in the NICU, Katelyn Thomas, her mother and her former NICU nurse, Sue White, attended a reunion last week for NICU babies from Howard County General.
Nearly 380,000 babies are born prematurely — meaning the baby is born before 37 weeks — in the United States each year, according to Nicole Bear, a senior development manager at March of Dimes, a national nonprofit that focuses on health equity, premature birth awareness and decreasing the preterm birth rate.
A full-term pregnancy lasts between 39 weeks to 40 weeks and six days, according to the March of Dimes website.
For the past three years, Howard General NICU nurses and families whose children were in the NICU unit, have come together to participate in the yearly March of Dimes walk in Baltimore.
Participating families came to the reunion decked out in purple, the March of Dimes color, and were given purple leis, capes and more. All families were asked to bring a photograph of their child or children when they were in the NICU.
The April 18 event was a kickoff for the March of Dimes walk on May 5. The 4-mile walk begins at 9 a.m. at the Canton Crossing Waterfront parking lot.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, better known as March of Dimes, in 1938. His personal struggle with polio led the president to establish the foundation.
Joanna Little — who has been a NICU nurse for 16 years, 10 of those at Howard General — has a professional and personal connection to caring for premature babies.
Both of Little’s children were born premature. Her 12-year-old daughter Gemma was born at 36 weeks old and her 10-year-old son Jonah was a 34-week-old baby, she said. They both were born and spent time at the NICU unit at Howard General.
Little organized the inaugural reunion last year where seven families attended. For this year’s she had been expecting nearly 20 families and several NICU nurses to attend.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for us to show off these babies are miracles,” Little said of the reunion. “There’s a lot of families and a lot of stories and each of them is so unique.”
For two families, in a time of fear, they bonded over their experiences and have become great friends.
The Moran family — Scott, Mackenzie and their daughter Quinn, who is coming up on 5 months old — spent 65 days in the NICU when Quinn was born in November at 31 weeks old, weighing 3 pounds, 7 ounces.
The couple is no stranger to the NICU. In 2016, their son Connor died in the NICU six hours after he was born. In his memory, Scott Moran has his son’s footprints tattooed on his arm.
During their time in the NICU with Quinn, the Morans befriended Jason and Danielle Blight whose twin sons Oliver and Harrison were born Nov. 28 at 32 weeks and six days.
Oliver, who was born weighing 4 pounds, 7 ounces, spent four weeks in the hospital and Harrison, whose birth weight was 4 pounds, 4 ounces, spent an extra week there. When Oliver left, Harrison got moved next to Quinn, but the families were already friends by then.
“I was really upset in the beginning, knowing you can’t bring them home right away,” Danielle Blight said.
The two families just started talking and really hit it off, they said. It was nice for the couples to be able to go through the same experience together.
“It’s a shared experience and a stressful experience,” Mackenzie Moran said.
It’s also nice to now talk about doctor appointments and tests with another family going through it, she added.
Marjorie Zepko, who was the Blight family’s nurse, has been a NICU nurse for 17 years, 10 of which have been at Howard.
“The most rewarding part about my job is the love I see the families have for their child and the outcome of success of what we do,” Zepko said.
In the beginning it can be a horror story, but by the time a journey comes to a close and the parents can bring their child or children home, it is “a happy event,” Zepko said.
Danielle Blight said she felt the nurses took care of her children as if they were their own.
“It was hard to leave every day but knowing they [her twin boys] were in good hands made it easier on us,” she said.
White, who worked at Howard County General for 16 years, loved being a NICU nurse.
“When I was in nursing school, I reached a point where I didn’t want to be a nurse and then I had one day in the NICU and I held a baby and I said, ‘This was it,’ I had found my niche,” White said, who is now an elementary school nurse.
When Katelyn Thomas left the NICU all those years ago, Susan Thomas gave each of her daughter’s nurses the book “Are You My Mother?” by P.D. Eastman. The children’s book follows a recently hatched bird who is looking for his mother.
The NICU nurses “were her [Katelyn’s] first mothers,” Susan Thomas said.