By Karen Zhou
I have set foot in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) three times in my life.
On my past two visits, I have been lucky enough to be a part of UC Irvine’s Care-a-thon team. Care-a-thon is a six-hour dance marathon solely intended to raise funds for the UCI Douglas Hospital’s NICU and its tiny patients. Though I’ve only visited our university’s medical school twice, there has always been a quality about its NICU that differentiates it from the rest.
On a recent Friday afternoon, the Care-a-thon team carpooled over to the hospital to visit the patients we were trying to save. While the conversation in the car centered more on fundraising logistics and event marketing, it turned to our cause and the patients of the NICU before entering the hospital’s lobby.
While most medical centers have a cold, clinical feel to them, UCI Medical Center is different from the entrance to the exit. As we waited for our host, Mary, we stood in the lobby, listening to a duo of guest musicians providing patients’ families some relief from a long day of care and decisions.
Mary soon explained to us the importance of a NICU and the different reasons why a newborn would need to be placed in one. NICUs care for ill or premature infants until they are strong enough to live without the aid of doctors or machines.
As she led us down through the NICU’s first set of doors, the first thing that caught my attention was the noise, or rather, the lack thereof. For a floor that is supposed to be filled with infants and newborns, it was eerily quiet. There were no cries, just the sound of machines humming and doctors’ footsteps on the tiled floors.
Some may say that silence helps the healing process, but, paired with the sight of a premature newborn, the quietness is an experience that changes something in your heart.
As we stood in the entrance to the NICU, Mary introduced us to Dr. Coleman, who brought us over to the patient rooms.
A few of the babies in the NICU are stable enough to sleep in cribs, but most stay in plastic-encased beds, which keep them warm and protected as they grow and heal.
Elizabeth, the first patient we visited, was in one of these plastic beds. She was wrapped in so many blankets that it was hard to see her, but as Dr. Coleman reached in to hold her, we saw just how alarmingly tiny she was.
Many of the babies are no larger than a soda can when they are first checked in to the NICU. Because these babies are so little, special tools are required to treat them — tools and equipment we seek to fund through Care-a-thon.
Continuing through the NICU, we were constantly greeted with an array of pastel blankets and teddy bears, a constant reminder of the families that were waiting for their newborns to return home to them.
As we reached the final patient on our tour, a familiar sight struck me. In the room, baby Nick slept in his own plastic-encased bed, bundled up in a yellow blanket. Attached to his bed was a card reading, “Get well soon, little brother!”
My mind flashed back to a similar card I had placed on my own brother’s bed when he was in a NICU.
I was only 4 years old at the time, but I remember it clearly. I would leave him cards and toys, constantly telling him about all of the adventures we were going to have when he finally came home. A NICU saved my brother’s life. The games of catch we’ve played since then, the hikes we’ve taken, the memories we’ve made together — they’re all thanks to a NICU.
And after we said our goodbyes and left the hospital, I couldn’t help but think of how supporting Care-a-thon could be my way of giving back to the units that helped save my brother.
We all left the hospital that day with a better understanding of what a NICU does.
More importantly, though, we each left with a better understanding of why we are involved with Care-a-thon.
For me, I dance at Care-a-thon in thanks for my little brother. I dance for all of the babies in the NICU that will grow up to be brothers, sisters, friends, peers and mentors. I dance for the pride that I have in my university for having a NICU, and the hope that I have for all of its patients.
For me, Care-a-thon has always been about giving the NICU babies the same chances that my brother was given. That’s why I love Care-a-thon and that’s why I’ll be hitting the dance floors on Feb. 23: to do something big for Irvine’s tiniest patients.