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.

Dylan & Payton Law

Dylan, age 9, and his younger sister Payton, age 7, were both born 6 weeks premature and cared for by the doctors and nurses of the neonatal intensive care units at both CHOC Children’s and CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital. Their mom McKenzie shares a thank you to their care teams.

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My family will forever be grateful for the blessings CHOC has given us― our children. Not only did Dr. Hanten save Dylan’s life, but all the nurses, doctors, and staff at CHOC took incredible care of Dylan, giving him strength and providing unforgettable emotional support for our family during a terribly scary time. Two years later those same doctors and nurses took care of his little sister Payton, who also spent a month in the NICU. They treated us like family, not just patients. They calmed our fears, held our hands, and loved our babies. CHOC has a special team of angels here to carry our little ones for us when we needed them the most.

When Dylan was born, doctors and nurses swarmed the delivery room. The doctors administered several doses of epinephrine to Dylan, but he didn’t breathe on his own for 22 minutes. They finally heard a faint heartbeat, but told us the likelihood of Dylan making it through the night was uncertain. At 2 days old he was transported via ambulance to CHOC in Orange, where we found out that he had brain damage. It was devastating to hear that our son may not walk, talk or eat on his own. Today, Dylan is a happy, kind, and compassionate little 9-year-old. He has ataxic cerebral palsy and struggles daily with his hands shaking, but that doesn’t stop him from enjoying school, Jujitsu, playing with his little sister, going to church, doing art projects, and playing outside. -Mackenzie Law

Noah Wenrick


Nine hours after Noah was born, a nurse noticed something was off during a routine check-up, and soon the family was sent to the NICU. Noah was diagnosed with a lung infection and stayed in the NICU for almost two weeks. His mom Ashlie pens a thank you note to his care team.

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A huge thank you from the Wenrick family to the whole CHOC NICU team for all that you do every day! You made us feel like family while Noah was in the NICU. Being new parents it was scary for us, but you helped us understand every step up to the day Noah got to go home! Now he’s a healthy and active 3-year-old. -Ashlie Wenrck

Ryan McLeod


You first met Ryan, a graduate of CHOC’s small baby unit, in November during #PrematurityAwareness Month. Look at him now! Ryan is a happy-go-lucky boy who recently celebrated his first birthday with a trip to Disneyland. At his Mickey Mouse-themed birthday party for family and friends, his parents set up a CHOC Walk station and encouraged their loved ones to join Ryan’s Sidekicks, their first-ever CHOC Walk team. Ryan’s dad says, “The way my wife and I look at things after going through this experience is that we want as many people and possible to gain awareness and support the CHOC NICU and their exceptional Small Baby Unit.”

Austin, Michaela & Caden Shay


Triplets Austin, Michaela and Caden were born a day shy of 31 weeks and spent 80 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital. Their mom Jennifer, a clinical nurse at CHOC at Mission, shares a thank you for her co-workers who cared for her children.

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On behalf of my entire family, I would like to thank the doctors and nurses that took care of our triplets at CHOC at Mission in the fall and winter of 2009. Austin, Michaela and Caden thrived with the tender loving care provided by the staff. Born a day shy of 31 weeks, Austin weighed 3 lbs. 9 oz., Michaela weighed 3 lbs. 3 oz., and Caden weighed a whopping 2 lbs. 0.5 oz. Despite my nursing knowledge, I was treated first and foremost as a mom. The nurses, doctors, and staff were always very professional in addition to being extremely considerate and attentive to our needs.

We cannot thank you enough for what you have given our family. We truly believe that our children― Caden in particular― would not be here today without the care they received in the NICU. It is because of the dedication of the CHOC at Mission NICU staff that we have three relatively healthy 7-year-olds at home today. What a happy and crazy home it is! Though we can never repay you for all that you have done for our family, we wish to thank you from the bottom of our hearts. You are all honorary aunts and uncles! Without the dedication of this team, I would not be the mommy of four that I am today. You have blessed our family beyond measure.     -Eternally grateful, Jennifer Shay

Willow Dee


After a healthy pregnancy, Willow was born just after 36 weeks via an emergency c-section. She was immediately transported to CHOC for body and brain cooling, to prevent seizure, stroke or damage to the brain. Her mother Cara shares a thank you note to the team that cared for now thriving almost-two-year-old.

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To our CHOC caregivers,

We want to thank you with our entire hearts for truly transforming a nightmare into a beautiful dream. After an extremely healthy pregnancy without any red flags, Willow was born at 36 weeks and 2 days. Twelve hours after my water broke, there was extreme blood loss prompting the nurse to call a code. The on-call OB-GYN at the hospital where I delivered was in my room within seconds. Willow’s heart rate was around 60 beats per minute, only half of what it should be. An emergency cesarean immediately followed. Doctors discovered that I had a very rare condition called velamentous cord insertion where the umbilical cord inserts into the fetal membranes, then travels to the placenta. This means exposed blood vessels are vulnerable to rupture. Willow had lost a substantial amount of blood that required two blood transfusions and she was intubated.

The life-saving, phenomenal level of care that we received from our team at Hoag Hospital quickly continued at CHOC. After a perfectly healthy pregnancy, I never could have foreseen my daughter would be taken via ambulance to a different hospital just five minutes after I saw her for the first time. EVERY single day, I think about our nurses and doctors at CHOC. They were calm, abundantly informative and so gentle. The doctors answered as many questions as we had and we were never rushed. They are truly masters of their craft. Before this experience, I never thought a NICU could be comforting.

The NICU doctor said that Willow had experienced “insult” to her brain; the lack of blood flow had caused hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy. Fortunately, CHOC has a body and brain-cooling process that is used in situations like this to prevent stroke, seizure and damage to the brain. Our daughter is lucky; her 72-hour cooling process resulted in zero stroke, seizure, or worse.

Today, Willow is 20 months old and thriving! She is a miracle because of all the hands that worked on her. We feel grateful to have spoken on behalf of CHOC over the last 20 months to help raise much needed funds for the new all-private-room NICU that opens this summer. We believe in paying it forward to the future families that now can stay with their baby as they heal. We love our caregivers at CHOC more than they may know.                                               –Love, Cara Dee

Faith Amouroux

Diagnosed at 18 weeks gestation with a congenital diaphragmatic hernia, Faith was born at 40 weeks gestation and spent four months in the neonatal intensive care unit. Today, she is a happy and active six-year-old girl. Her family shares a note of thanks for the team that cared for her.

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Our family thanks God everyday and we are forever grateful for the caring and dedicated NICU team at CHOC. Our daughter, Faith was diagnosed at 18 weeks gestation with a birth defect called CDH (Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia). We learned that 80 percent of her diaphragm was missing and were told that the statistic were not good. Her chances for survival were slim and if she did survive, she would have many health issues. Faith was born at 40 weeks gestation and after ECMO, CDH repair surgery & four months in NICU she pulled through. Faith is now 6 years old and has had a few minor hurdles but continues to defy the odds. She is doing great. Faith loves to sing, dance, play dress up, jump rope and read. Thank you CHOC; you have an awesome NICU team. -Amouroux Family

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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.”

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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.

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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:

  • 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 – ...
  • Small Baby Unit Before and After
    In observance of Prematurity Awareness Month, meet a few graduates of the Small Baby Unit (SBU) at CHOC Children’s. The only of its kind in Orange County, the SBU focuses on ...

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).

Dr. Kushal Bhakta
Meet Dr. Kushal Bhakta, medical director of the small baby unit at CHOC Children’s

The Small Baby Unit – the first of its kind – opened in 2010. The special 12-bed unit within our neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is designed for babies born at less than 28 weeks gestation or who weigh less than 1,000 grams. The space is designed to aid in babies’ development with dim lighting and low noise levels, mimicking the womb’s environment as closely as possible. The unit is also nurturing for patients’ families. Since they are going through many of the same experiences, families are able to bond and support one another.

“It’s an amazing blessing to be part of these families’ lives. So many parents write to us and send pictures long after they’ve left the hospital. There is a mutual respect, and they become part of our extended family,” Dr. Bhakta says.

Board certified in pediatrics and neonatal-perinatal medicine, Dr. Bhakta is part of a specialized, highly trained team at CHOC. He owes the success of the unit to his team, he says.

“It’s inspiring to see the team’s passion for the lives of these babies,” Dr. Bhakta says. “From nurses to respiratory therapists, and all other disciplines, everyone on the team takes care of our patients like they were their own children.”

The highly committed team is improving quality and outcomes in extremely low birth weight infants. Impressive outcomes from the two years before and four years after the SBU’s opening in March 2010 include:

  • Significant reduction in chronic lung disease of prematurity.
  • Significant reduction in the rate of hospital-acquired infections.
  • Significant reduction in infants being discharged with growth restriction . These factors are linked to cognitive and physical disabilities.
  • Reduction in the average number of laboratory tests and X-rays per patient.

Dr. Bhakta’s vision for the SBU is to be recognized nationally and beyond as the premier destination for the care of extremely preterm infants. Dr. Bhakta and his team have hosted many hospitals interested in modeling their units after CHOC’s SBU. As leaders in their field, the team hopes to continue to improve patient outcomes.

“We’ve come so far in how we treat this patient population, he says. “We don’t want to only adapt knowledge, but create the knowledge and help set standards of care for these patients.”

Dr. Bhakta received his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine and completed his pediatric residency and neonatal-perinatal fellowship training at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, in Houston, Texas. He later joined the faculty at Baylor College of Medicine/Texas Children’s Hospital as assistant professor of pediatrics, where he also obtained an advanced certificate in teaching through the Educational Scholars Fellowship Program.

Dr. Bhakta has received several awards throughout his career, including “Super Doctors Southern California Rising Stars” in 2014 and 2015.

In his spare time, this dedicated physician enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters.

Learn more about CHOC Children’s Small Baby Unit.

Related posts:

  • 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.
  • 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 ...
  • Small Baby Unit Before and After
    In observance of Prematurity Awareness Month, meet a few graduates of the Small Baby Unit (SBU) at CHOC Children’s. The only of its kind in Orange County, the SBU focuses on ...

Small Baby Unit Before and After

In observance of Prematurity Awareness Month, meet a few graduates of the Small Baby Unit (SBU) at CHOC Children’s. The only of its kind in Orange County, the SBU focuses on caring for the unique needs of the smallest and sickest babies. This special unit is designed for babies born at less than 28 weeks gestation or who weigh less than 1,000 grams.

moanalani

Moanalani Solomon
Current age: 1
Birthday: July 14, 2015
Gestational age at birth: 28 weeks
Birth weight: 2 pounds, 13 ounces
Personality now: “Moanalani is an extremely happy baby who loves to chat with anyone who will listen.  She can roll over and wants to show that trick off as soon as she’s on the floor. She is feisty and absolutely full of life,” says Noelani, Moanalani’s mother.
Reflections on the journey: “We got to know every family in the unit. We really became such a support group for each other. We exchanged phone numbers and birth dates of all the other babies, and asked ‘How did you get here?’ and ‘What’s your story?’ You become family. You’re here for the same purpose. That’s what we really clung to,” Noelani says.

small baby unit

Lucas Zaragoza
Current age: 1
Birthday: June 16, 2015
Gestational age at birth: 24 weeks
Birth weight: 1 pound, 8 ounce
Personality now: “Lucas is always happy, loveable, mischievous, very alert, and curious,” says Heather, Lucas’ mother.
Reflections on the journey: “The nurses told us we’d be very hands on, take his temperature, change his diaper, hold him. They said, ‘It’s OK, we’ll walk you through it.’ They’re part of our family now. We don’t know we would be without CHOC and the nurses and doctors and everyone who had a hand in Lucas’ care,” Heather says.

small baby unit
Jeremiah Zazueta
Current age: 6
Birthday: March 22, 2010
Gestational age at birth: 25 weeks
Birth weight: 2 pounds, 4 ounces
Personality now: “Jeremiah, known as J.J., is a kindergartner full of life and personality. He is very outgoing and friendly. He enjoys playing T-ball, singing, reading, and playing with Hot Wheels. In other words, he’s a typical active boy,” says Maria, Jeremiah’s mother.
Reflections on the journey: “At that moment, you just want them breathing. The doctor said if he cries when he’s born, that’s a good thing. I heard a whimper like a kitten and that gave me peace. The doctor said he’s a feisty one – he was moving his arms. This one’s a feisty one,” Maria says.

small baby unit

Parker Evans
Current age
: 4
Birthday: Sept. 29, 2012
Gestational age at birth: 23 weeks
Birth weight: 1 pound, 1 ounce
Personality now: “Parker’s battle to survive despite the odds seems to have established a bold defiance of the day-to-day challenges that life presents. Every task, no matter how simple or complex, is something that she routinely and emphatically proclaims, ‘I want to do it all by myself!’ The smallest of her peers and behind in her physical development, Parker seems to be the only one not to notice. She has a zest for life and is intent on taking full advantage of the chance she has been given,” says Kristina, Parker’s mother.
Reflections on the journey: “We ended up falling in love with the Small Baby Unit, the nurses and the consistency. Everyone in that unit made a huge difference,” Kristina says.

small baby unit

Faith and Brayden Kohrs
Current age
: 3
Birthday: Nov. 26, 2012
Gestational age at birth: 24 weeks
Birth weight: Both 1 pound, 10 ounces
Personality now:  “We love their amazing hearts, helpful spirits and beautiful souls. They are truly our two little blessings. The kiddos love to travel. They do really well on road trips. Going out with Grandpa Kohrs on his boat in Lake Havasu is always a blast. Faith loves to dance. Brayden loves blocks and Legos. They both love Mickey Mouse Club House, music and books,” says Marydith, the twins’ mother.
Reflections on the journey: “We love the wonderful, wonderful Small Baby Unit staff. They are the reasons we have our babies today. They are just amazing,” Marydith says.

Pediatrics Article Highlights Big Outcomes in CHOC’s Small Baby Unit

CHOC Children’s Small Baby Unit (SBU) is improving quality and outcomes in extremely low birth weight (ELBW) infants (babies born at 28 weeks gestation or less and weighing less than 1,000 grams), according to results of an article CHOC physicians and staff published in a recent issue of Pediatrics.

“In recent years, the survival rates for ELBW infants have improved with the latest advances in neonatal intensive care, but many are still released from the hospital with significant challenges, including neurodevelopmental delays and/or chronic medical problems,” said Mindy Morris, DNP, the SBU program coordinator and the article’s co-author. “Our goal was to improve these outcomes by utilizing a dedicated team with expertise in the care of these patients.”

The objective of the CHOC neonatology team was to care for ELBW infants in a single location physically separated from the main Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). This space became the 12-bed SBU, which consisted of four individual patient rooms, two of which are surgical suites, and three four-bed pods. Different from a traditional NICU, this smaller unit allows for a darker, quieter environment that encourages developmentally supportive care. The goal is to create an environment that respects and supports the physiologic needs of the baby to grow and develop after being born so prematurely. Grouping this population also provides parents an opportunity to form strong bonds with other families sharing similar experiences.

Outcomes from the two years before and four years after the SBU’s opening in March 2010 include:

• Reduction in chronic lung disease from 47.5 percent to 35.4 percent. A common condition for premature babies, chronic lung disease can have long-lasting ramifications including re-hospitalization and poor neurodevelopment.

• Rate of hospital-acquired infection decreased from 39.3 percent to 19.4 percent.

• Infants being discharged with growth restriction (combined weight and head circumference, < 10th percentile) decreased from 62.3 percent to 37.3 percent. (These factors are linked to cognitive and physical disabilities.)

• Reduction in laboratory tests (from 224 to 82) and X-rays (from 45 to 22).

Additionally, there was a reduction in illness and complications among infants after leaving the SBU.

Moving forward, the SBU’s goal is to continue to improve patient outcomes, as well as family and staff satisfaction, while also becoming a destination for the care of extremely preterm infants.