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Christmas at home extra special for preemies

Baby’s first Christmas is a special time.

Baby’s first Christmas is a special time.

But when baby is born more than three months prematurely, weighs one pound, 12 ounces, and is surrounded by a tangle of wires, monitors, probes and other high-tech medical devices to ensure she survives, it’s hard to be festive.

“I just wanted to skip it,” said Jenna Whitehead Arruda of last year’s holiday season, when she and her husband, Mario Arruda, were keeping vigil at their daughter’s incubator in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Royal Columbian Hospital.

But a year later, little Ella is home, crawling around her family’s Coquitlam condo, tipping over the plaid reindeer and getting into the packages under the tree.

“We’re calling this our first Christmas at home,” Whitehead Arruda said.

She hasn’t forgotten the stress and anxiety of that stretch of 129 days in hospital, wondering if her daughter would survive, looking for any and every sign she was making progress — worries that only amplified through the Christmas season.

Friday, Whitehead Arruda and seven other families from around Metro Vancouver who were also in the NICU at RCH last Christmas will be back at the New Westminster hospital with their babies, spreading hope and good tidings to parents going through the same anguish and uncertainty this season. They’re distributing 30 cloth sacks filled with candles, gingerbread, handcrafted cards and knitted baby hats, Christmas ornaments, tiny onesies, gift cards for coffee, hair bows, decorative paper trees and little tokens people not spending 24/7 at the hospital might take for granted like lip balm and moisturizing lotion. They’ll also bring a platter of food for the doctors and nurses who miss time with their families to ensure the newborns receive the best care.

It’s all about paying forward the support the parents received last year from previous NICU graduates who hung stockings on the incubators and did their best to make the hospital ward feel like a Christmas home away from home, Whitehead Arruda said.

“It made such a difference.”

Whitehead Arruda said the bond formed between NICU families is indelible. 

“We cried together, we laughed together,” she said.

When Whitehead Arruda was finally able to bring Ella home, she started a Facebook group for the connections she’d made at the hospital and last summer the NICU class of early 2019 began formulating a plan to bring a little Christmas to this year’s cohort. Donations flowed in immediately and by the time the group got together last Saturday to assemble care packages, the original concept of stockings had ballooned to full-on Santa sacks.

“We didn’t really have to try that hard,” Whitehead Arruda said of the response to their call for donations. In fact, they accumulated so much stuff, they’ll even be able to provide gift sacks to antepartum moms prescribed bed rest in the hospital.

Whitehead Arruda said the support network is critical for getting through such a trying experience.

“We were able to get reassurance, find little joys and laugh at little things that were funny,” she said. “Without it, my mental health would have been terrible.”

Best of all, the babies are healthy and home this Christmas, she said, noting, “It’s neat to be out with our babies doing Christmas things."

• Gifts for the NICU at Royal Columbian can be made online at Specify the NICU when selecting where to apply your donation.