-- It's hard to believe the toddlers walking around the park on tiny, wobbly feat were born at 36 weeks, 33 weeks, 24 weeks.
It's always a joy just to watch the children color at the reunion after having seen them when they weighed only one or two pounds at birth, said Dr. Vijay Nama, medical director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas. Families spend weeks or months in the hospital depending on how early their children were born, and as a result, they form a special bond with the nurses and doctors who took care of their newborns.
"It's almost like you don't just meet them in the hospital," Nama said. "You know them as a family."
The reunion is tied to World Prematurity Day, which, according to March of Dimes, is a day to raise awareness about the 15 million babies a year who are born before their due dates around the globe.
Nama said babies born earlier than 37 weeks gestation are considered premature. The tiniest babies, born between 23 and 27 weeks, have the most difficult road ahead. Like most premature babies, their lungs aren't fully developed. The earlier a baby is born, the less developed it is. As a result, these babies need to be given respiratory support until their lungs can work on their own.
After 27 weeks, the preemies' road is a little easier, Nama said, but on average, they still stay in the hospital until what would have been their due dates.
He said the hospital staff hears from former patients long after they leave the hospital -- either on the phone or through Facebook. And the mothers form their own support groups while they wait for their babies to be healthy enough to leave the hospital.
Although technology has made advancements for preemies over the years, Nama said the biggest tool doctors have learned to use is the mothers themselves. Breast milk and skin-to-skin contact are just as good as or better than much of the medicine in his arsenal.
"The biggest advancement we've made is really the involvement of the family," he said.
Although he couldn't make it to the reunion this year, he usually attends to see the families whose children are only a few months old or up to 6 years old.
"It's fun to watch them," he said. "Really when you see them weighing one or two pounds, and now they're trying to do painting. ... Imagine when you first see them when they're born."