Seventeen years ago, Madaline Bell experienced one of the scariest times of her life, when her twin daughters were born prematurely at 23 weeks. Weighing 1 pound each with numerous health complications, the babies—Sydney and Payton—required care in Pennsylvania Hospital’s (PAH’s) Intensive Care Nursery (ICN). Most babies born this early only have a small chance of survival.
“You have all this baby stuff, and you imagine yourself bringing your babies home right away, but that didn’t happen. I was terrified,” said Bell.
Today, Bell’s daughters are both honor students at their high school, but Bell has never forgotten about the care team that helped her daughters in their fragile beginnings. “The ICN made a miracle happen. My kids are now healthy and that’s because of the people who took care of them.”
It’s interactions like these that have families returning to the hospital for PAH’s biennial ICN Reunion—to reconnect with care teams in a happier environment and celebrate the successes of their ICN graduates.
Celebrating ICN All-Stars
For the 2023 reunion, PAH’s Elm Garden was transformed into a sports hub for an “All-Stars Sports” theme, with rally towels and pennants, lawn games, and activities. While the theme nods to the city’s pro teams reaching impressive feats, like the 2022 World Series and the 2023 Super Bowl, the reunion celebrated another set of all-stars—the ICN’s former patients.
Held on September 30th, concluding Neonatal Intensive Care Month, the reunion was the sixth of its kind at PAH. It was also the unit’s first reunion since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, serving as an opportunity for nurses, physicians, neonatologists, respiratory therapists, and other staff to unite in person again with parents and their babies.
“We sometimes treat patients for months in the ICN. They become part of our own family,” said ICN nurse Michelle Sohlich-Miller, BSN, RNC-NIC. “It is one of the most fulfilling things to reconnect with a patient after discharge and see them grow into a flourishing child.”
'A Ray of Hope’ for Parents
PAH has a long history of maternity care; in 1765, it was the first U.S. hospital to deliver a baby. Now, the hospital delivers more than 5,000 babies every year, and recently, the ICN achieved a GOLD-Level American Association of Critical-Care Nurses Beacon Award for Excellence. But some newborns may need extra care before going home, such as those born with acute illnesses, or premature infants who need time to grow and develop, like Bell’s daughters.
During the family’s time in the ICN, Bell recalled how her nurses not only kept her informed of her babies’ health and treatments, but also made sure she was cared for and answered any questions she had. Bell looks forward to attending the reunions to thank the nurses, like Sohlich-Miller, who was part of her care team, and to personally recognize the team’s efforts.
“They were the most excellent of teachers, and I credit them for holding me and my family together,” said Bell. “When you’re providing that level of care to babies, while also being patient with parents, you’re superhuman."
The reunion also serves as “a big ray of hope” for parents whose babies are currently in the ICN, said Sohlich-Miller. At a previous reunion, the parents of one patient, whose health was beginning to improve in the ICN, walked around the event and asked families who were once in their position for advice. “Now they come back as the graduates and inspire hope for others,” she said.
Staying Connected All Year Round
Throughout the year, the team’s planning committee raises money through bake sales and raffle baskets to organize the reunion. Other Penn entities similarly hold reunions—Chester County Hospital held a NICU reunion in 2022, and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania will be holding its reunion in June 2024.
While the reunions are a time to catch up with families in-person, the PAH ICN team also hears from families all year round, through donations to the unit, and the 40 to 50 greeting cards the unit receives each holiday season as a thank-you for their care.
“It is remarkable to go from helping a family during one of the most stressful moments of their life to then reuniting and bonding in a different way—a happy way,” said Sohlich-Miller. “To celebrate their child and all they’ve accomplished.”