Big Little Steps

As Monmouth Medical Center's NICU celebrates 50 years, three families reflect on their life-changing journeys at the hospital.

IN 1968, MONMOUTH MEDICAL CENTER (MMC) became the first hospital in New Jersey and the first community hospital in the country to establish a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Today, it boasts the region’s largest state-designated, level III NICU with one of the highest survival rates in the country. Staff members include board-certified neonatologists, specially trained nurse practitioners and neonatal nurses, therapists, social workers and a broad-range of subspecialists, including pediatric surgeons and radiologists.

The Hirair and Anna Hovnanian Foundation Regional Newborn Center (RNC) provides specialized care for more than 500 babies annually—even those weighing less than a pound and born at just 23 weeks gestation. But in the RNC, the focus is on parents as well as babies.

“Parents are often here with their babies for extended periods—four to eight weeks or more,” says Susan Hudome, M.D., chief of neonatology and medical director of the Hirair and Anna Hovnanian Foundation Regional Newborn Center, “so family comfort is a top priority.” It is a priority that is evident in conversations with parents whose babies spent significant time in the NICU. A common reflection for these families is that what was a very difficult time in their lives became a positive experience due to the unit’s extraordinary caregivers.

Jocelyn and Steve Passarello

For Toms River residents Jocelyn and Steve Passarello, MMC’s NICU would be their home away from home for 111 days following the birth of their son, Lucas. Born Oct. 5, 2013, at 26 weeks gestation and weighing 2 pounds, 2 ounces, Lucas’ care was primarily related to respiratory issues—a common complication in very small babies.

“Lucas’ biggest issue was with his airway, and he still has issues with his breathing related to that,” says Jocelyn, who notes that he also has something known as soft voice due to scar tissues on his vocal cords. And while he wears glasses to correct farsightedness and currently undergoes occupational and physical therapy to improve his fine motor skills, Lucas today is a typical, intelligent, inquisitive 4-year-old.

“The NICU staff was very attentive to Lucas, and they had our complete trust,” Jocelyn says. “We had such a great experience during the 16 weeks we spent at Monmouth. We are involved each year in the Big Steps for Little Feet fund-raising walk (see related item on page 34), and have kept in touch with many of the nurses, some of whom have babysat for Lucas.”

Jocelyn, a social worker with a local community YMCA, and her husband, Steve, a retail manager for a Best Buy store in Princeton, are also parents to Mack, 1, who was born full term at 8 pounds, 8 ounces. “After Lucas was born, I learned that I had a uterine septum, which is a congenital defect in the wall of my uterus that didn’t allow enough room for him to fully grow, and I had surgery to correct it,” she says.

Christina and John Russotto

Morganville residents Christina and John Russottos’ NICU journey began the same date as the Passarellos’, when their twin sons Johnny and Michael were born Oct. 5, 2013, at 25 weeks gestation, weighing 1 pound, 14 ounces, and 1 pound, 12 ounces, respectively. While Christina’s pregnancy had progressed normally, she said that on a routine well visit on Oct. 4, her doctor discovered that she was in labor, and she was admitted to MMC, where she underwent an emergency C-section the next day.

While Johnny’s stay in the NICU lasted nearly four months, his twin, Michael, was transferred at 2 months to an out-of-state hospital for eye surgery from which he never awoke. In the family’s home, framed photos of the tiny preemies adorn the Russottos’ family room wall, and Johnny, a tall, smart and active preschooler, proudly points to pictures of his brother. Additionally, Christina, a teacher, and her husband, John Sr., who works in Information Technology, have a 2-year-old daughter, Giovanna, who was born at full term.

“I consider Monmouth Medical Center my home, and the NICU staff to be a part of my family,” she says, noting that Johnny underwent care typical of a tiny preemie, primarily oxygen and caffeine treatments for his developing lungs. “We spent 107 days—12 to 14 hours a day—there, and we really saw firsthand that the care is second to none. The care and compassion of the nursing staff is amazing—Johnny’s primary care nurse is still involved in our life, and comes to his birthday parties.”

Like Jocelyn, Christina is active with the annual Big Steps for Little Feet Walk, and serves on the hospital committee that organizes it each year.

Bernadette and Michael Moncada 

For Old Bridge residents Bernadette and Michael Moncada, the day their daughter Alexandra was born—last summer on July 31 at 31 weeks gestation weighing 3 pounds, 6 ounces—was the scariest moment of their lives.

“My husband and I did not know what to expect on the journey that was ahead of us,” Bernadette says. “The first time we saw our baby girl, was very, very hard—she was so tiny and was attached to different tubes and a breathing support machine, and it broke our hearts to see her that way. But the experience turned out to be amazing, as the NICU doctors and nurses gave us the strength to get through the hard days and see a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Like Christina, Bernadette’s pregnancy was not considered high risk, and her doctors couldn’t tell her why she delivered Alexandra nearly two months early. She recalls how challenging it was to go home without her baby, but said they would visit the NICU every day and read and sing to her.

“The NICU staff was phenomenal, and were able to make such a scary and unknown experience so comforting,” she says. “They give so much of themselves each and every day to take excellent care of every baby on the unit; they really go above and beyond to help each family cope with the struggles that can come with having a NICU baby.”

Bernadette, a school counselor at Perth Amboy High School, and her husband, Michael, a staff member with the Union County Department of Public Works, recall how the nurses would nurture Alexandra when they couldn’t be there.

“They were like our angels watching over her for us,” she says. “My husband and I will be forever grateful to them; I believe that our daughter thrived there because of each and every nurse and doctor that took care of her.”

Seeing Through Angel Eyes

As Monmouth Medical Center’s NICU marks its 50th anniversary in 2018, the Hirair and Anna Hovnanian Foundation Regional Newborn Center has been gifted with the latest interactive technology that allows parents and families to see and interact with their babies in the neonatal intensive care unit via live video streaming and direct, one-way audio.

The innovative Angel Eyes system, funded by a generous donation from the Scire Family Foundation, uses a camera placed at the baby’s bedside so that parents and other family members who can’t be at the NICU can view the baby 24 hours a day by logging into a secure account from their laptop, tablet or smartphone. This system helps promote bonding between parents and their premature babies, who sometimes have to stay in the hospital for weeks or months.

The far-reaching ability of the system allows for babies to hear the voices of family members worldwide. For the Sheehan family, who welcomed triplet girls on March 25—six weeks early—Angel Eyes gives parents Richelle and Thomas peace of mind at times when they are unable to be by the babies’ sides. The system also allows family in New York and Georgia to be a part of the girls’ journeys.

“We cannot express how much Angel Eyes means to our family. It allows us to see the triplets, even when we cannot be there,” Richelle says. “Being parents of three babies in the NICU is an emotional and physical challenge. The cameras have helped make the experience easier for our entire family.”

To learn more about the Hirair and Anna Hovnanian Foundation Regional Newborn Center, call 732.923.7250. to share your NICU experience, email Monmouth Medical Center's Department of public relations and marketing at  KATHY.HORAN@RWJBH.ORG. To share this article on your Facebook page, visit MONMOUTHHEALTHANDLIFE.COM.

Categories: Monmouth Health & Life