About 300 parents and children attended a holiday party this week that they might have missed were it not for medical advances that are saving the lives of tiny, premature infants.
"They told us at birth that our daughter had a 50-50 chance to live," said Bill Franchini, a Manhattan Beach high school teacher. "Her big problems were her lungs and her slow weight gain. Our lives revolved around her gaining a third of an ounce."
But there he was on Monday afternoon, holding 6-month-old Brooke--who weighed 2 pounds, 7 ounces at birth--in his arms. His his wife Sandy was by his side.
Nearby, Oscar Bianchi, a cabinetmaker from Granada Hills, beamed as he looked at his 6-year-old daughter, Priscilla, whose lustrous dark eyes contrasted with her vivid red dress. "She used to be one of the little ones, but she isn't any more," he said.
Priscilla was born 15 weeks prematurely and was confined to an incubator for three months. Bianchi recalled the times that his infant daughter stopped breathing altogether and had to be stimulated through massage.
Another parent, Torrance college professor Ron Way, talked of his son, Ryan, who was born five weeks early and was diagnosed as having spinal meningitis. "We were pretty alarmed," Way said, "but he improved after he was put on antibiotics."
What brought these and many other families together in a large room at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance was the annual reunion of "graduates" of the hospital's intensive care nursery, which cares for about 250 premature or seriously ill infants each year.
It was a big, noisy, festive seasonal party, complete with blue, green and white balloons, cookies and brownies that dared you not to have two or three more, white-flocked Christmas trees, and Santa Claus himself.
But what made the occasion special was that it brought together children who fought for their lives, parents who worried over them, and the hospital staff that helped them all win the battle.
Registered nurse Susan Rasmussen, who heads the intensive care nursery, said that only a few years ago, many of these children would not have survived. "Over the last five or six years, we have made major advances in what we are able to do," she said, citing such things as more sophisticated respiratory equipment and incubators that monitor infants' skin temperature and make automatic adjustments, which once had to be done manually. Babies as tiny as one pound, and as premature as 15 weeks, can grow up to lead normal lives, she said. Little Company's smallest ever was born four years ago and weighed just 1 pound, 6 ounces.
"It's very special to see the people who took care of Priscilla and who took care of my wife and me, because we were in such terrible distress not knowing if our daughter would live or not," said Bianchi.
"It's neat," said Sandy Franchini. "The nurses go on about Brooke, about how small she was."
And parents who got to know each other during long vigils with their children had a chance to meet again.
Naomi and Bruce Langdon, whose preemie twin daughters were born in August, were anxiously awaiting the arrival of another couple whose twin boys were born just a week before the girls. "We're planning to pair the children up in 20 or 30 years," Naomi Langdon said with a laugh.
The holiday reunion was started seven years ago by intensive care nurses who did not want to lose touch with the families that had become a part of their lives. "Babies sometimes spend months in the hospital and the nurses become part of the family," said hospital spokeswoman Peggy Coleman.
Rasmussen said she has been to every party. "It's good for us when the people come back because we're concerned about what's going on with them," she said. "We see that the children are really happy and chubby, and things are going the way they should for them."
Priscilla Bianchi is one of Rasmussen's special memories: "I took care of her a lot when she was here. She weighed less than two pounds, but she was always real feisty and cute. It was hard on her parents. Mom was working, and dad was working, and they would drive in a couple of times a day from the valley to see her."
Rasmussen said that a critical problem for all preemies is the immaturity of their systems--lungs, heart, kidneys, liver, brains, even their skin, which is so transparent that they cannot maintain their own body temperature.
"We support them and keep them alive while they grow, while their system matures," she said.
Most preemies today survive, she said, although they are subject to a variety of medical problems. Frequently, it takes preemies several years to grow to their normal size, but Rasmussen said they usually catch up.
While several parents said their young children have no medical problems, Ron Way and his wife, Marja, are anxious about 1 1/2-year-old Ryan's heart defect. "He is going to have exploratory surgery next week," said Ron Way, explaining that the problem may be an open duct, which forces the heart to work faster, or an undersized valve.
But the Ways say they are confident Ryan's problem can be corrected. After all, when his mother had to have an emergency Caesarean section he was five weeks early and immediately developed meningitis--and he survived.