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.

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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.

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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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Inside the Small Baby Unit: Ryan’s Story

Danielle McLeod was looking forward to an easy second pregnancy and ultimately caring for her infant son as a confident and assured second-time mom.

But that expectation changed when little Ryan was born three months early this past winter after just 27 weeks gestation and weighing only 2 pounds and 1 ounce.

small baby unit
Patient Ryan shortly after his birth and before he was transferred from another hospital to the Small Baby Unit at CHOC Children’s.

“His head wasn’t much bigger than a pacifier,” Danielle recalls. “He was the littlest baby I had ever seen. He was so skinny, and was all arms and legs. I was amazed at how active he was for such a little person. Like many preemies, he was a fighter from the start.”

And fight Ryan did inside CHOC Children’s Small Baby Unit (SBU), a portion of CHOC’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) dedicated to the care of babies born with extremely low birth weights. These patients are born at less than 28 weeks gestation and weighing less than 1,000 grams, or about 2 pounds and 3 ounces.

In the SBU, “micro-preemies” like Ryan receive coordinated care in a developmentally appropriate environment. A trailblazer in neonatal care nationwide, the unit is saving babies who just decades ago wouldn’t have likely survived.

“With its coordinated care in an environmentally appropriate location, the Small Baby Unit is designed to care specifically for babies like Ryan,” says Dr. Kushal Bhakta, Ryan’s neonatologist and medical director of the SBU. “When he came to the unit, he required significant ventilator support due to an ongoing infection, and he had a long road ahead of him.”

Danielle’s breezy pregnancy took a sudden turn early in her second trimester when her doctor found in her womb a subchronic hematoma, an indicator that she might deliver her baby early.

 Danielle was put on bed rest, but a few weeks later, bleeding and signs of labor showed. At the hospital, doctors were able to stop the labor and admitted Danielle to keep it from beginning again too early. But about six weeks later, Danielle’s water broke and she underwent an emergency cesarean section.

On Valentine’s Day, after two weeks of ups and downs, Ryan was transferred to the SBU at CHOC and the McLeod family began their four-month journey.

“I don’t think people understand the pain that comes with having a child and not being able to hold him immediately or not being able to take him home shortly after delivery and share him with the world,” Danielle says.

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Ryan was born at 27 weeks gestation and spent 17 weeks in CHOC’s small baby unit before going home.

She continues, “It was difficult knowing that there were many obstacles for Ryan to overcome before he could even think about coming home. Simple things like eating by mouth, a task that should come naturally, are challenging for babies born premature.”

During that time, while also focusing on growing, Ryan also battled chronic lung disease and a brain bleed, and learned to eat and breathe on his own. Meanwhile, Danielle and husband, Jared, learned how to care for a baby born more than three months early.

“I’ll never forget our first day at CHOC,” she says. “I was so overwhelmed, scared, and nervous. Once Ryan was settled in the SBU, his nurse came in to do his very first set of cares. I sat and watched, afraid to touch him. He was so fragile.”

She continues, “His nurse said, ‘Get in there, mama. You can do it.’ She had me put my hand on him, my hand covering his whole little torso. She talked me though what to do when caring for an extra small baby. From then on, I felt confident to be close to my little fighter.”

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Members of Ryan’s care team included Dr. Kushal Bhakta, medical director, and Ryan’s mom Danielle.

After 17 weeks in the SBU, Ryan finally went home to join his parents and brother. He still receives oxygen treatment and undergoes physical therapy twice a week, but is doing well.

It takes a village of physicians, nurses, therapists, social workers and other clinicians to help bring babies like Ryan home — and every one on the care team partners with patients’ families.

“During his stay in the unit, Ryan overcame great obstacles, thanks to the partnership between his care team and his parents,” Dr. Bhakta says. “Our goal in the unit is to get our patients home with the best possible outcomes. Today, Ryan is doing well and has a bright future ahead.”

small baby unit
At CHOC, parents are valued members of the care team. Here. Ryan’s dad holds him for the first time in the small baby unit.

Small but mighty, Ryan is rolling over and pushing himself up well, and is working toward sitting up by himself.

“He also loves smiling and laughing, especially at his big brother,” Danielle says.

small baby unit
After graduating from CHOC’s small baby unit, Ryan has been enjoying being home with his family and playing with his older brother.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” she says. “We are so grateful to all the wonderful nurses and doctors who cared for Ryan. I know he is doing so well because of the amazing care he received while in the SBU. We love our little fighter. He’s such a good baby. He is truly a miracle and we are blessed to be able to witness this little guy’s journey.”

Related posts:

  • 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 ...
  • Meet CHOC NICU Graduates
    As we prepare to celebrate the opening of our all-private-room NICU, say hello to a few graduates of the CHOC NICU.
  • Meet Dr. Kushal Bhakta
    In recognition of prematurity awareness month, we’re highlighting Dr. Kushal Bhakta, medical director of CHOC Children’s Small Baby Unit (SBU). The Small Baby Unit – the first of its kind – ...