MID-CITY — Emily Kay Tillman didn’t know if her newborn twins were going to survive. They were born premature — just shy of 27 weeks — and weighed about 2 pounds each.
But when she walked into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Saint John’s Health Center just a month after they were born, she saw that a nurse had dressed her baby girls in tutus and little headbands made for dolls. That’s when she knew it would be all right.
“It’s impossible to explain what it’s like going to sleep at night not knowing if they’re going to live,” Tillman said. “I just knew they were going to be OK, no one could say … but it was that moment that I felt like we’re going to get through this.”
Now, her daughters are 5 years old and about to start kindergarten. Tillman still keeps in touch with Cathleen Dickinson, the nurse who dressed her daughters the day they came off their respirators, and has been back to visit the family she developed at Saint John’s at least 10 times.
“We dress (the babies) so (the parents) can see past the wires. It’s great to see them grown and thriving,” Dickinson said, adding that the nurses work as a team to raise parent morale.
More than 300 nurses, parents and NICU graduates were reunited at the hospital’s first reunion in nearly 10 years Sunday afternoon. Healthy and now-grown babies adorned with face paint roamed the dining area while nurses reunited with the parents they spent so many weeks, sometimes months, reassuring.
“A lot of the staff is close like family, it was the toughest thing we’ve ever been through,” said Ronnie Coleman, whose son Dylan spent three months in NICU.
She and her partner of five years, Reta Sula, stayed at the hotel across the street from the hospital rather than commuting from their home in Long Beach, which forced Coleman to sell her motorcycle to pay the bill.
“The amazing thing is without this staff, he wouldn’t have made it,” Coleman said, adding that she created a PowerPoint with photos of her son to illustrate the stages of recovery for other parents going through the same struggle. “They were so honest and answered every question we had, even if we didn’t want to hear the answer.”
The NICU opened in January after it was moved to the newly constructed Chan Soon-Shiong Center, part of the new Saint John’s hospital built after the old structure was damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
The unit is on a self-contained women’s health floor, with 12 beds in the intensive care unit — twice the space from the old center. Babies in intensive care are typically born premature or have an infection that prevents them from being released right away.
Saint John’s has a “baby-friendly” philosophy that emphasizes constant contact between mother and child, said Elsa Ruedas, a lactation educator and community liaison. The women’s health floor is designed so families can easily stay together without being moved from room to room throughout the birth and recovery process, she said.
Ruedas said Saint John’s delivers anywhere from 140 to 160 babies a month, about eight to 10 of which end up needing intensive care.
“Sometimes you’re worked off your feet, but the sick babies get better and it’s nice to see them healthy,” said Lynn Sharp, a respiratory therapist in the NICU.
The reunion featured performances by students at Tillman’s Fancy Feet Dance Studio in the Pacific Palisades, as well as a magician, arts and crafts for children and family photo opportunities.
“Most keep in touch with Christmas cards. (Seeing them) shows us we’re really doing a good job taking care of the little ones,” said Susie Chang, who has been a nurse for 34 years. “They always get better.”