The first time Colin and Andrew Prazak came to the University of Maryland Medical Center, they hadn't even been born.
The twins were delivered there seven weeks' premature, said their mother, Angela Prazak of Northeast Baltimore.
On Sunday, they returned to the hospital for a reunion at Maryland's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, a day to share stories and celebrate overcoming the anxiety that accompanied the arrivals of the roomful of children, accompanied by their parents, some grandparents and siblings.
The boys played at a noisy indoor safari while their mother recalled their birth.
"I didn't find out I had twins until I was five months' pregnant," Prazak said. "Then I was hospitalized for 31/2 weeks. They arrived via a C-section, on Mother's Day, as a matter of fact."
She recalled that the NICU was filled to capacity when she arrived.
"But I never felt their care was compromised," she said as she supervised her 23-month-old sons.
While many of the infants were born at UM Medical Center, others were moved there in the first days of their lives. Not all the babies were born prematurely. Some were full-term but sick at birth. They also required weeks of care.
"We give thanks for the gift of these children," said the Rev. David Harness, a hospital chaplain who works in the neonatal unit. "I see a whole range of emotions: scary, uncertain and exciting."
Hospital officials said the oldest graduate at the reunion was Chase McLean, a quiet 9-year-old who is in third grade at Sharpsburg Elementary School. Attired in a black suit, he stood by his four siblings, most of whom also uttered their first cries in neonatal units.
"My wife went into preterm labor out of nowhere," said Greg McLean, a federal employee who wound up quitting one job to spend time holding his family together as the infant grew stronger and could eventually leave the hospital. The McLean clan also included mother Cecilia and children Cecil, Edgar, Graham and Heather.
The day was also about rewarding hospital staff with a chance to see how the children looked long after they had been discharged. Officials said the Maryland unit treats some of the state's smallest and most fragile infants. Its 40 beds allow for evaluation and treatment of infants born as early as 23 weeks of gestation. Often they face respiratory and heart problems, vision trouble, jaundice and other medical issues.
"It's really the nurses who become part of the families in the neonatal unit," said Dr. Cynthia Bearer, chief of neonatology. "More so than the doctors, it's the nurses that will use this day to come back and see how the infants have grown."
Bearer spoke enthusiastically of a new neonatal unit at the UM Medical Center that is to open next year. Parents will be accommodated on daybeds in private rooms, and there will be laundry service and kitchen areas.
"The NICU is a high-stress place, and an event like this — where healthy kids come back — re-energizes the staff," said Brenda Hussey-Gardner, a Maryland developmental specialist and an organizer of Sunday's event. "To get to see these babies who weighed about a pound and were so critically sick become happy, talking children helps us to go back and do our job. All the hard work is worth it."
Some 14 members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity at the University of Maryland, College Park volunteered the labor for the safari-themed event. They also provided the music and games.
Brian Baturin, a senior from Sicklersville, N.J., is about to get his degree in physiology and neurobiology. "We just wanted to do this and be a help," he said of the fraternity members.
Michele Althouse of Hagerstown brought her twins, Elena and Reed, to the reunion. She arrived at UM Medical Center by ambulance more than four years ago. She feels so strongly about the care she received that she joined a parents' advisory council that helps hospital officials run the unit.
"As the children in this room grow older, they'll realize just how lucky they were," Althouse said.
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