Like many of the children in the huge hall at Martin's West in Baltimore County yesterday, Ashley Cirri had been in a hurry to be born.
Apparently, the little girl had decided that 29 weeks was long enough.
Her impatience meant she was born 11 weeks prematurely, weighing just under 3 pounds. So, like the many other children at the 10th annual reunion of Howard County General Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Ashley got her first glimpses of the world from the hospital's NICU.
These days, the 7-year-old is the picture of health. But now it's her tiny brother who is partaking of the hospital's NICU services. Anthony Cirri Jr. followed his sister's game plan, coming into the world at 29 weeks at 2 pounds, 11 1/2 ounces on Aug. 17. He'll probably be in the NICU until late October or early November, his parents said.
"The same nurses that took care of Ashley are taking care of our son," said Lisa Cirri, sitting at one of the green-clothed tables. Lisa and Anthony Cirri had nothing but praise for the doctors and nurses who staff the facility.
"They're great," Anthony Cirri said. "They keep you informed when you're not there. Any little change, whether it's to the good or to the bad, and they try to get in touch with you."
Added Lisa Cirri: "They talk to the babies all the time. They might not even be working on them. They just come over to say 'Hi' to them."
About 500 kids, parents, grandparents, doctors, nurses and others attended the event, which featured face-painting, storytelling, dancing and lots of conversation. Tables were piled high with cookies, fruits, vegetables, pizzas and other munchies. Decorations included yellow, purple and green balloons, and party favors included tiny stuffed dinosaurs with even tinier "2000 Neonatal ICU Reunion" T-shirts.
Dr. Tuvia Blechman, clinical director of the unit, said it can be hard to recognize all the children because they grow and change so fast.
"For us, it's very encouraging to see them and see how well they're doing," he said.
Blechman, who started the unit in 1990, happens to have two sets of triplets, plus a "singleton." None of his seven children was premature, but had they been, they would have gone to Howard County General's NICU, he said. The unit treats about 250 babies a year - about 10 percent of all births at Howard County General Hospital, he said.
When the NICU opened, it was staffed with neonatologists and nurses trained to care for premature or seriously ill infants. It could treat as many as 12 babies at a time. In 1994, six beds were added. In 1998, pediatric surgeons joined the staff, enabling the hospital to perform neonatal surgery.
One thing Blechman said he particularly likes about Howard County General's NICU is that it has the personal touch of a community hospital plus the sophisticated resources of Johns Hopkins, with which the hospital is affiliated. That personal touch was mentioned by many parents at the reunion, sponsored by Mead Johnson Nutritionals, a maker of baby formula and food.
Rachel King, who is 2, was born 5 1/2 weeks early and was sent to the NICU after "she stopped breathing a few times," said her mother, Teresa King. Rachel stayed three weeks, until she went seven days in a row without breathing problems. The NICU staff, she said, was reassuring and supportive.
"If I was awake at 3 in the morning, I would call to ask how she was doing," Teresa King said. "They were never irritated. They understood that you wanted to call a lot and be there a lot."
Troy Wallace, who was cradling tiny 9-week-old Micah, said the nurses encouraged him to help take care of his new daughter, who had been in the NICU 2 1/2 weeks after being born at less than 5 pounds. "They let you be hands-on with your child and that releases a lot of fear," he said. "The care there ... could not have been better," he said. "They were the best."