KANSAS CITY, KAN. The main cafeteria at the Kansas University Medical Center has rarely seen such chaos.
Oxygen-filled balloons lined the floors as babies and preschoolers crawled after them, chewed on them and popped them. Helium-filled balloons drifted along in the air on their way to the ceiling.
To parents, nurses and doctors watching the scene, the chaos was quite acceptable. Some of the young celebrants weren't expected ever to participate in such festivities.
The occasion was the sixth annual reunion Sunday of more than 150 former patients of KUMC's neonatal intensive care unit, NICU, their parents and the health professionals who saw them through their first months of life.
"WE ALL LOOK forward to this," said Staci Stathopoulos, a registered nurse in the unit. "It's the time we get to see our babies come back."
Stathopoulos said the nurses in the unit consider all of the babies "theirs."
"We just love them," she said. "They are our babies in a way. We get them off to a healthy start and their parents take over from there."
KUMC's neonatal intensive care unit cares for premature infants and other babies who need special medical attention after delivery.
Some babies, such as Trey Dallas of Ottawa, contracted pneumonia right after birth and had to spend a week in the unit.
"You get really close to the nurses," said his mother, Kelly. "They were absolutely fantastic. They called him Jumbo he was so big, and they were used to seeing the smaller babies.
"And now it seems like a lifetime ago."
TREY IS A blustery 10 months old with an engaging smile and tousled blonde curls.
"He is totally different than he was when he was here," his mother said. "They had to put him on a respirator his first night, but he hasn't been sick since. He's feisty."
She said she and her husband often thought about the nurses who were so kind to them during Trey's stay at the med center.
"And I see a lot of the parents who were here when Trey was," Dallas said, looking around the room and trying to keep the rambunctious Trey from falling off the table.
"One couple we got to really know while we were here. We realized we were lucky, a lot of the babies are here a lot longer."
The youngest baby at the reunion had been released from the NICU only two weeks earlier. The oldest NICU alumni was 4 years old.
ALTHOUGH A lot of the babies return to the hospital for checkups, the annual party offers a different, more relaxed atmosphere in which the staff, parents and babies can visit.
"We don't recognize them all," nurse Stathopoulos said. "Babies change so much, it's tough to picture how they might look now. We often recognize the parents first."
When a baby is admitted to the NICU, nurses share information with the parents as well as perform their regular nursing duties.
"A lot of our mothers are first time," Stathopoulos said, "and premature babies can require a lot of extra care. We show the parents how to watch for complications. It's such an emotional time, we really do bond with them. It's hard for the parents to go home and have to leave their new baby at the hospital."
Parents were unanimous in their praise for the KUMC nurses.
"I KEPT BUGGING them," said Marilyn Martin, of Kansas City, Kan. "Macquel was born 2 months premature and I was here every day. But the nurses were beautiful and patient."
They helped her in endless ways, she said. "Just sitting and talking with me. And when I'd leave, they'd keep me informed with everything they'd done while I was gone."
Macquel is now 9 months old and loves to be hand-fed chocolate cake.
"She's doing great," Martin said. "She's as busy as a bee."
Benita Christwell of Kansas City, Kan., holding her daughter, Kathryn, also about 9 months old, also praised the nurses. Kathryn was born six weeks prematurely and stayed in the unit for about 10 days.
"They're a real help, especially if you've never been in this situation before. They really get you over the fear," she said. "My first daughter was born prematurely too and we went to a different hospital, but they weren't as good as the nurses here. They really care here."
Watching the children intent on cornering their share of cookies and balloons, Dr. Kathleen Weatherstone, a KUMC neonatologist, commented, "They all look so different now. They've changed immensely. It's just good to see so many here."