The route to the Intensive Care Nursery (ICN) at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) is one Maurice Joseph O’Leary, 67, knows well. He traveled it almost daily in the spring of 2018, alone or with his wife, Betty. He’d drive half an hour from his home in Clifton Heights, Pa. to West Philadelphia, regularly hitting the road, sometimes under moonlight at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m. Any chance he had to go, he seized. He’d enter the hospital, sometimes completely empty-handed, except for maybe some hand sanitizer to keep germs away from young immune systems.
Now, a year later, as he walks into the hospital, he carries a box of Hershey bars instead. He’s not there to spend time with his little, twin granddaughters, Paige and Charlotte, anymore. He’s there to visit the medical staff that cared for the girls when they were at their most vulnerable. This is a visit of celebration. It’s a visit of a thankful grandpa.
To express his appreciation for the care his granddaughters received from Penn Medicine, O’Leary has continued to return to the ICN every two months or so since the girls, his second and third grandkids, were released from the hospital. The first and only children of O’Leary’s son, Joseph (Joe), and daughter-in-law, Suzanne, the twins were due to be born in July 2018. They arrived much earlier — March 30 — and stayed in the ICN for three months.
“Combined, they weighed under three and a half pounds at birth…we were really scared they weren’t going to make it,” O’Leary says, rather matter-of-factly. Now, over a year old, they weigh 17 pounds each. “When people ask me about our twins, the number one question is how old they are, followed by how big they are…their size is no indication of how far they have come and how much growing they have to do, and that always is emotional for me.”
O’Leary and his wife make it a point to deliver food to the ICN staff, many of whom had a role in caring for the littlest O’Learys. The couple even tries to make sure that their visits occur during different shifts so that no one who helped their girls is left out. (O’Leary made it a point early on to time one visit to the schedule of a young practitioner still going through school so that he could check on her.) Sometimes the treat is homemade mini-muffins straight from Betty’s kitchen. Other times it’s chocolate or boxes of plain, provolone, and pepperoni pizza. Conversations range from the staff’s own careers and families to, obviously, Paige and Charlotte.
“He’s not Mr. O’Leary to us,” says Victoria Pontillo, BSN, RN, a nurse in the ICN who cared for Paige and Charlotte. “He’s PopPop…he was really our family while he was here…it doesn’t take a lot to see how much he cares about his kids, grandkids, and even us.”
When you ask O’Leary about why he’s so grateful to the ICN, he’s quick to mention the top-notch medical care, care that led to his granddaughters leaving the hospital after three months, bigger and stronger. He first talks about the medical side of their care. Then he talks about the human side. “[Charlotte and Paige] are our flesh and blood, but the staff treated them like their own kids.”
When appropriate, “PopPop” could do what grandpas do during those visits. He could hold the babies. He could read to them and tell them he’d take them to their first Phillies’ game or down to the Jersey shore when they got out. “The staff never got in our way…they just let us be grandparents,” O’Leary says.
“When they were strong enough to breathe on their own, I would remove the girls’ C-PAP masks for a couple seconds so that PopPop could see their faces,” Pontillo says. “He would beam.”
As a parent himself, O’Leary recognized and appreciated the attention his own son and daughter-in-law received from the ICN, too. While many conversations revolved around science and medicine (O’Leary’s son Joe is a PennSTAR flight nurse and Suzanne is a critical care nurse practitioner) and even some hard but necessary truths, O’Leary says, the medical team discussed their own children and told stories of hope and encouragement.
“The staff always offered advice, empathized with all of us, and offered continuous support on our best and worst days,” says O’Leary. “They were our rocks.”
“Your patients are never just the babies. The family is, too,” Pontillo says.
O’Leary isn’t the only one to come back to HUP for no medical reason. For the girls’ first birthday, Joe, Suzanne, Paige, and Charlotte, paid their own visit to the ICN in March, donating supplies collected from a personal drive the family held. The girls’ former medical team held the healthy girls and saw the results of three months in the ICN and a lot of love during and after their stay.
When he returns to the ICN, O’Leary says the memories of those fragile, scary, early days spent at the hospital don’t return, too. “It’s kind of a joyful thing now,” he says. Part of that may be because now his visits take place in the reception area, away from the hard work going on behind the scenes and the little babies like Paige and Charlotte, O’Leary says. But it seems it’s also because the struggles and worry have been replaced with health and happiness…and snacks.