Children's Hospital Welcomes Babies, Families to Reunion

October 24, 2006
News Office: Phyllis Brown (415) 502-6397

Princesses held court and superheroes saved the day in Saunders Court on Saturday when children with their families joined the nurses, social workers, doctors and others who cared for them as babies at the UCSF Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) reunion.

About 1,000 guests attended the annual reunion, including former patients and siblings dressed in their Halloween costumes, along with their parents and friends. The little pirates and ladybugs loved the mammoth inflatable jump house, the face painter and balloon twister.

Their parents and caregivers simply celebrated the children themselves: They have survived.

“We see these parents and babies when they are going through one of the most stressful times in their lives, so it’s wonderful to see the families who we’ve helped through those experiences,” said Michelle Cathcart, patient care manager for the NICU.

Infants cared for in the NICU generally are babies born prematurely or requiring medical intervention. The NICU has about 900 admissions a year, said Cathcart, who organized the event with Neonatal Outreach Educator Cynthia Jensen.

About half of the NICU’s patients are born at UCSF, Cathcart said, and half are transferred from other regional hospitals –some from as far away as Nevada and Hawaii.

Paul Berghoff, of Chicago, watched as his son Andrew swung from the limb of a pine tree near the Health Sciences building. At one time, it wasn’t clear that Andrew would survive.

While still in his mother's womb, the 7-year-old had been diagnosed with a congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH), a condition in which the membrane that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity doesn’t form properly, potentially allowing the contents of the abdomen to enter the chest and inhibit or prevent the growth of the lungs.

"It put the fear of God in us," said Berghoff. "But it was an easy decision to know we wanted to come out here for our care."

Shortly after birth, Andrew received a lifesaving surgery by world-renowned pediatric and fetal surgeon Dr. Michael Harrison, director of the Fetal Treatment Center at UCSF Children’s Hospital. Andrew continues to be seen in the Fetal Treatment Center’s CDH clinic, which had been held the day before

“The caring is so great,” Berghoff said. “Jody Farrell, of the Fetal Treatment Center, is such a calming, sweet influence. No one could be more patient and sincere.”

About 120,000 babies in the United States, or one in 33, are born each year with birth defects, according to the March of Dimes. A birth defect is an abnormality of structure, function or metabolism present at birth that can result in physical or mental disabilities or death.

Nearly 500,000 infants are born prematurely each year in the United States. The rate of premature birth has been growing steadily during the past two decades. Between 1981 and 2003, the rate of premature birth rose by almost a third, from more than 9 percent to more than 12 percent.

Premature babies can be born with a range of health problems, and may spend much longer in the hospital than full-term babies. Babies born at term may spend only two days in the hospital. Babies with any degree of prematurity or low birth weight may stay in the hospital anywhere from two weeks to a month or longer.

At a tertiary care hospital like UCSF Children’s Hospital, babies can be hospitalized much, much longer, Cathcart said, with some babies being hospitalized for six months or more.

Onno van Os, of San Francisco, dressed as a teddy bear, slept in his stroller during much of Saturday’s activities. The 5-month-old boy was born on May 27 and wasn’t discharged from the NICU until August 11, almost three months later.

Onno’s parents, Wendy and Marcel van Os, said their son was born with a rare surfactant protein B deficiency, which means that his lungs don’t produce a protein that allows them to inflate on their own.

His parents were grateful that Onno could return for the reunion.

“We are really grateful that he was born at UCSF,” Wendy van Os said. “He has received great care, though they don’t really know why he’s able to breathe on his own. He’s something of a medical miracle. We never thought he would make it this far.”