All posts by CHOC Children's

One family, two NICU stays

Each year, one in 10 babies in the U.S. are born prematurely. For the Cushing family, that statistic is two in two. Eleanor and Spencer’s eldest son, James, was born at just 24 weeks gestation. Their newest addition, Walter, was born at 31 weeks.

Today, both boys are doing well, thanks to respective stays in the CHOC Children’s small baby unit (SBU), a special unit within the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) that focuses on caring for the unique needs of the smallest and sickest babies.

Big brother James

James Theodore was born at a local hospital weighing just 1 pound 6 ounces. He was transferred to CHOC when he was 1 day old and spent four and a half months in CHOC’s SBU.

james-birth-small-baby-unit
James, shortly after his birth.

James’ SBU stay – July to November – was filled with myriad health challenges, in addition to his goals of gaining weight and learning to breathe on his own. During his hospitalization, James fought off a bloodstream infection, was intubated multiple times to help him breathe, underwent a minor cardiac procedure and eye surgery, and worked through feeding challenges. By the time he graduated from the SBU, his weight was up to 6 pounds. He was discharged with supplemental oxygen and a pulse oximeter to monitor the oxygen levels in his blood and had multiple follow-up appointments to track his progress.

Throughout a lengthy hospitalization, CHOC staff made sure the Cushings still had the opportunity to celebrate traditional milestones with their new baby – including his first Halloween. He was dressed up as Winnie the Pooh – in a Build-A-Bear costume, since typical Halloween costumes were still too big for him. His parents and nurses donned coordinating outfits to round out the Hundred Acre Wood characters.

James is now 3 years old. He’s smaller than other kids his age and has a slight speech delay, along with a new prescription for glasses. But despite his early start in life, James is doing well.

Each year on James’ birthday, the Cushings return to CHOC’s SBU to visit the doctors and nurses who cared for him during his early days.

James visit_Dr. Bhakta
Each year on his birthday, James visits the CHOC staff who cared for him as an infant. He’s pictured here with his dad Spencer (left) and Dr. Kushal Bhakta, medical director of CHOC’s SBU.

“Despite James’ life-threatening obstacles, the SBU team was able to care for our son and save his life,” Eleanor says.

Little brother Walter

Due to her existing medical issues, Eleanor knew she would likely deliver early with any additional pregnancies. When she and Spencer were ready to add another child to their family, they switched medical plans so that she could eventually deliver at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, right next door to CHOC’s expert neonatologists and other pediatric specialists.

Walter Rudolph was born at 31 weeks gestation and admitted to CHOC’s SBU, just like his older brother. At birth, he weighed just 3 pounds, 7 ounces. Walter’s goals in the SBU focused on growing and gaining weight. Six weeks after birth – and two weeks before his original due date – he was discharged from the hospital. In that time, he had grown to 5 pounds, 11 ounces.

walter_small baby unit
Eleanor holds her newborn son Walter, alongside smiling big brother James.

During Walter’s SBU stay, he was cared for by many of the same doctors, nurses, and developmental and respiratory therapists who cared for his older brother.

“When James was born, it was so nice to see so many familiar faces from our first SBU stay,” Eleanor says.

These familiar faces included Dr. Kushal Bhakta, medical director of CHOC’s SBU, and Dr. Michel Mikhael, a CHOC neonatologist.

“Our medical team was not only super smart, but they were also warm and compassionate,” Eleanor says. “There was always a theme with staff; they were always asking, ‘Do you have any questions? Can I get you anything?’”

Eleanor and Spencer are both nurses by trade, but at CHOC they got to focus on just being parents.

“Because of our medical backgrounds, we knew what the machines and monitors were doing, but we didn’t have to worry about any of that. We got to focus on just being parents,” Eleanor says.

walter-nicu-graduation
Walter, on his graduation day from CHOC’s NICU. His graduation cap was knit by CHOC volunteers, and his graduation certificate showcases his impressive growth in the NICU.

With two NICU stays behind her family, Eleanor’s message to CHOC staff is a simple one.

“Thank you to everyone who walked us through this journey,” she says. “We are a stronger family because of it.”

Learn more about CHOC's small baby unit

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CHOC resident follows in his father’s footsteps

Growing up, Tim Hicks fondly remembers seeing his dad come home from work with a smile. Despite his demanding job as physician, his dad, David, always remained positive and shared countless rewarding stories that he witnessed at the hospital.

It was that unwavering dedication that inspired Tim, now a chief resident at CHOC Children’s and UC Irvine, to pursue a career in medicine.

“Seeing how happy my dad has been, I wanted to be part of that,” he says.

As long as he can remember, Tim was interested in medicine. He was a curious child and enjoyed science and learning about the human body.

Similarly, his dad, Dr. David Hicks, a pulmonologist and neonatologist at CHOC for more than 40 years, had always been interested in medicine as well. David wanted to become a veterinarian initially, like his own father, but eventually went to medical school.

During his long and successful tenure at CHOC, David has enjoyed seeing the hospital’s growth and working alongside a compassionate and dedicated team.

“What’s most inspiring at CHOC is the desire of our nurses and doctors to treat their patients as if they were their own children. That, and when I see the smiles on parents’ faces when their kids get better, is what inspires me to continue to do this,” says the 74-year-old physician.

It’s that same drive that motivates Tim to follow in his dad’s footsteps.

“I really enjoy treating and hanging out with kids. They manage to smile even in a very difficult time. Their light-heartedness and innocent outlook are refreshing in many ways,” Tim says.

Tim’s relationship with CHOC goes back even further, however. His dad recalls the time when Tim, a teen then, was admitted to CHOC to be treated for a splenic fracture.

choc-childrens-hospital-resident-physician-father
Dr. Hicks with his son Tim at his white coat ceremony, where residents receive their white coats for the first time.

“Little did we know then that he would be back as a pediatric resident one day,” David says. “It was a few scary days in the PICU. Moments like that teach you that life is precious and that things can change very quickly.”

Tim completed his pediatric residency in July 2019 and became a board-certified pediatrician. His goal now is to go into pediatric pulmonary medicine, like his father.

“Pulmonary was one of my last rotations in residency, and I fell in love with it,” Tim says. “I guess I’m following my father’s footsteps even more closely now!”

Reflecting on his years as a resident, he knew becoming chief resident was the natural next step in his journey.

“I wanted to be a chief resident because I love the CHOC residency program. It’s an extra year where I take on more of an administrator role, a position that allows me to help make important improvements to our already wonderful program.”

Along with meetings, scheduling, seminars and other responsibilities that come along with the role, Tim appreciates the chance to become a teacher.

“The Chief Resident position is unique; as a liaison between the residents and administrators, I try to be the residents’ voice and empower them while getting insight into the workings of a large program of 90 residents working at three hospitals. Because of this, I will become a better teacher, communicator and leader.”

Both Tim and David point to CHOC as an ideal place for budding doctors to learn. Between a diverse patient population and a wide variety of cases, residents can expect to be challenged.

“Training at CHOC gives us a wealth of knowledge,” Tim says. “It’s a great foundation for any pediatric career that residents decide to pursue, whether it is general pediatrics or subspecialty medicine. The attendings at CHOC are wonderful, approachable and eager to teach. They really help foster a CHOC family atmosphere that feels very special to be a part of.”

Seeing his father work at CHOC for more than four decades has given Tim a unique perspective about what it means to be part of the CHOC family.

“As his son and as a former CHOC patient, I have learned how special the patient-physician relationship is. To be a physician and serve in the community I grew up in is something few people are lucky enough to experience.”

For Tim, that means occasionally encountering familiar faces.

“Some of the most special moments in residency have been when I have helped take care of my father’s patients,” Tim says.

It reinforces the impact of his dad’s work when those former patients – now parents of their own children – remember Dr. David Hicks fondly.

“My dad has given me great advice and taught me to treat each patient as a person – that it’s important to take care of their unique, individual needs with care and compassion.”

Tim – or “Hicks 2.0,” as he jokingly refers to himself – couldn’t be prouder to follow his dad’s path.

“My dad is an incredible role model and friend. I’m not only thankful for his guidance in life but also in medicine,” he says.

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Honoring the Veterans Among our Mighty Brigade

This Veterans Day, CHOC Children’s wants to acknowledge the military veterans among our mighty brigade of clinicians and staff, and extend our heartfelt thanks for their service to our country.

We asked our veterans to share how their history of service impacts their work at CHOC, and how it contributes to our mission to nurture, advance and protect the health and well-being of children.

Here are a few of their responses.

Bill Rohde

  • Sergeant (E4), U.S. Air Force
  • Vice president, finance, CHOC Children’s

“Veterans understand what it truly means to defend and protect, making them well qualified to be defenders of childhood and protectors of the health and well-being of children.”

Bill_Rhonde_CHOC

Teela Hernandez

  • Hospital corpsman, pediatric unit, U.S. Navy
  • Registered nurse, multispecialty unit, CHOC Children’s

“Because of my service, I know how to multi-task and roll with the punches. I work well under pressure.”

Teela Hernandez

Daniel Holloway

  • Petty Officer, U.S. Coast Guard
  • Marketing project manager, CHOC Children’s

“I joined the Coast Guard and served active duty for six years because I aligned with the mission to protect lives and the environment, provide life-saving care to those in distress and promote safety through law enforcement. Military service taught me teamwork and discipline to see things through. Transitioning to CHOC was a great fit for me as its mission and values are in alignment with protecting the health and well-being of children and everyone who comes through our doors. I am grateful to work in partnership with the most wonderful people doing incredible, life-saving work within our community. I am a proud veteran and CHOC employee.”

Daniel Holloway

Cortney McKinney

  • Medic, U.S. Army
  • Registered nurse, outpatient infusion center, CHOC Children’s

“While I was a medic in the Army, I found my love for medicine and helping people. I knew I wanted to be a nurse. The Army helped me realize that God gave me the heart of a servant. I now continue my service as a nurse caring for my patients here at CHOC.”

Courtney McKinney

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From CHOC mom to CHOC employee

“You look like you could use a good cup of coffee,” Maria would say from time to time to a tired parent at CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital. “Oh yes!” they’d reply as she’d make them a cup.

Maria understands that a warm cup of coffee doesn’t just help sustain a parent who’s running low on sleep, but also gives them back a small sense of normalcy while their child is hospitalized.

Maria, a former department assistant in the administrative offices of CHOC at Mission who recently transferred to the laboratory at CHOC Children’s Hospital in Orange, knows this all too well. Her son Nehemiah, who is now a happy and healthy 11-year-old boy, was born with a heart condition and spent the first four months of his life at CHOC.

“If I see a mom struggling, I would try to do my best to be there for them because I understood what they were going through” she says. “They’re comforted knowing that someone understands.”

Delivering next door to CHOC

Thanks to a prenatal ultrasound, Maria and her husband Juan knew there was a problem with their son’s heart. But doctors told them they wouldn’t know the extent of the problem until he was born. Maria chose to deliver her son at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange so that they’d be next door to CHOC, and he would have close access to any specialized care he might need.

Shortly after Nehemiah was born, doctors performed an echocardiogram, a common and safe procedure that helps doctors look at how the heart is working. Dr. Anthony Chang, a pediatric cardiologist who is today CHOC’s chief intelligence and innovation officer, was present at Nehemiah’s birth.

“I was so scared for my son, but I felt like he was in good hands,” recalls Maria. “Dr. Chang explained Nehemiah’s condition and that he needed to be transported to CHOC for emergency surgery. He said it was a race against time.”

Nehemiah was born with interrupted aortic arch and ventricular septal defect, a condition with a large hole in the heart and blockage of the main artery feeding the body. Normally a hole in the heart would be considered bad news, but that hole helped him live because it allowed blood to circulate until corrective surgery could be done.

When Nehemiah was two days old, he underwent his first in what would become a series of heart surgeries, performed by Dr. Richard Gates, CHOC’s medical director of cardiothoracic surgery and co-medical director of CHOC’s Heart Institute.

After Nehemiah recovered from surgery in the cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU), he was transferred to CHOC’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). He had a feeding tube to help him eat, but as a step towards going home, he needed to work on eating on his own.

Nehemiah spent his first Christmas in the hospital, and his parents weren’t sure when they would be able to bring their baby home.

The day after Christmas, Nehemiah’s condition worsened when he contracted a blood infection called septicemia. Babies under 3 months can contract this because their immune systems haven’t developed enough to fight off overwhelming infections that originate elsewhere in their body. Once he was stabilized, his care team opened his chest so they could administer a vacuum-assisted closure (VAC) to help soak up the infection. A suction pump device connected to a tube with a foam sponge on the end, which was placed into Nehemiah’s chest to soak up the infection. His dressings were changed regularly for several weeks until the infection was gone. Once he recovered, his care team closed his wound and he was transferred back to the CVICU.

It takes a village

It would be another few months before Nehemiah would be able to go home. During that time, CHOC became home for his family. Juan would shuffle back and forth between hospital and the family’s home, bringing Nehemiah’s siblings Ethan and Giovanni, who were 3 years old and 10 years old at the time, to visit their baby brother. Maria’s mom would help the family and visit as well. During Nehemiah’s months-long hospitalization, Maria stayed by his side and never went home.

“It took a village to get my little guy through this ordeal,” Maria said.

A four-month hospital stay

Before Nehemiah was discharged after more than four months in the hospital, his parents received education and training from his doctors and nurses, so they would be able to care for him at home. He was discharged with a feeding tube, oxygen tank and medication.

“We were so excited to finally bring him home. In a sense, it was like we all got to finally go home,” Maria recalls. “My other two kids had essentially been living with their grandma, I had been at the hospital, and my husband had been going back and forth. We were finally together under one roof.”

Nehemiah’s heart was fragile, so as he grew up he would sometimes get sick more easily, and more severely, than his brothers and friends.

“If he would get sick with just a little cold, he would go from zero to 10,” Maria says.

Sometimes that would include seizures, which lead to two hospitalizations.

A second heart surgery

Nehemiah has undergone one additional surgery to repair a blockage that developed between his heart and great aortic artery, called a subaortic membrane.

“After his last heart surgery, his seizures stopped, and he started becoming normal,” Maria said.

These days, Nehemiah, who loves sports and music, visits CHOC every six months for check-ups with Dr. Chang to see how his heart and arteries are progressing as he gets older.

“His team always wants to know as he is growing, are the arteries growing with him? Eventually, he’ll need another procedure someday,” Maria said.

Despite semi-frequent trips to CHOC, Nehemiah is not afraid of doctors because for him, doctor appointments are second nature, according to Maria. Nehemiah has spent so much of his life in and out of CHOC that he refers to it as “My CHOC.”

A few years ago, when Maria was looking for a new job, her personal connection to CHOC was a big factor in her search, she says.

“I felt like CHOC was somewhere I’d want to work because I had so many positive experiences here as a mom. Everybody was very friendly. The nurses were good with all my kids, and with me too,” she said. “I remember that little things went a long way, and I try to bring that to my work here now.”

Learn more about the Heart Institute at CHOC Children's

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Giving back through volunteering at CHOC: Rosemary’s story

By Rosemary Islava, current CHOC volunteer and mother of former CHOC Children’s patient Aliyah

When my daughter Aliyah was fighting cancer, my family spent a lot of time at CHOC Children’s Hospital.

Aliyah was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 2. Before we were transferred to CHOC from a hospital closer to our house, I vaguely knew there was a children’s hospital in Orange, but I had no clue about the miracles and magic that happens within the walls of CHOC.

Throughout Aliyah’s journey, she underwent multiple brain surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy. Our family spent as much time by her side as possible. Aliyah’s siblings practically grew up at CHOC. At one point, Aliyah stayed in the hospital for seven months straight.

Rosemary and Aliyah
Rosemary and Aliyah

Aliyah beat cancer once, and then had to regain her ability to walk, talk, eat, sit, hold her head up—everything. As you can imagine, throughout this journey our family got to know practically everyone at CHOC—doctors, nurses, physical therapists, security guards, cafeteria staff, the sweet staff who cleaned Aliyah’s room, and more. They became like family to us.

Aliyah was always a very determined and caring little girl. Although she was soft-spoken, she was a firecracker. She taught me what true strength was, even though I think it should’ve been the other way around.

After a few years of remission, Aliyah’s cancer returned when she was 9, and she passed away shortly after her 10th birthday. The special way her doctors and nurses cared for her throughout her life didn’t end when she passed away—several of them even spoke at her memorial service.

Caring for others the way CHOC cared for my family

A year after Aliyah passed away, I joined CHOC’s mighty brigade of volunteers. Everyone at CHOC had done whatever they could – for years – to make Aliyah feel like the princess she was. They also made our experience as a family easy and comfortable, and I wanted to pay it forward.

You might assume that volunteering at a hospital is sad. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be here. For me, the opposite is true. Yes, sometimes people get bad news here. But more common that, volunteers and staff get a front-row seat to the resilience CHOC patients display every day.

I was open to serving anywhere the hospital needed me, but I was placed on the oncology unit. During my weekly volunteer shift, I get to serve in all sorts of ways, from helping nurses re-stock supply carts with much-needed supplies, playing board games with patients who need a buddy, or making a cup of coffee for a tired parent. I love assisting families through the discharge process—loading up a red wagon with their belongings and helping them get to their car. I celebrate with them when they can take their child home.

My family was treated so well during our time at CHOC, and it’s a privilege to pay it forward to other families. Whenever I leave CHOC, my heart feels full.

Each week, I proudly put on the traditional blue smock worn by hospital volunteers, along with my CHOC volunteer ID badge. My badge holder includes a photo of Aliyah. Sometimes patients will see Aliyah’s photo and ask about her. Everyone’s journey is different, so I’m careful about what I tell them.

Honoring Aliyah’s memory

My family has found other ways to honor Aliyah’s memory as well. Her birthday was September 19, during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Last year to celebrate her birthday – a few months after she passed away—we collected boxes of fun band-aids to support the hematology/oncology unit at CHOC’s band-aid drive. You might think a band-aid is a small gesture, but to a hospitalized child, a band-aid in their favorite color or bearing their favorite character, can be a bright spot.

rosemary_lemonade stand
This year on Aliyah’s birthday, her family held a lemonade stand to raise money for CHOC.

This year for Aliyah’s birthday we held a lemonade stand to raise money for CHOC. We had a great turnout—family members, friends, neighbors, community members, even the fire department showed up! We donated the funds raised to support research efforts by Aliyah’s oncologist, Dr. Ashley Plant.

Making my daughter proud

Throughout Aliyah’s battle with cancer, I felt so grateful for the way her team at CHOC cared for her. That’s why I’m back, volunteering at CHOC—to have a chance to pay it forward to other families and the staff here.

I think the way I am serving other CHOC families would make Aliyah proud.

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