Lucas Gutierrez has chubby cheeks, curly brown hair and a smile that makes him the center of attention in any room.
Whenever the 20-month-old grabs a cellphone and says “cheeeese” into the camera, he tilts his button nose up, showing a tiny dent in the right nostril.
That’s where his body grew around the oxygen tubes he wore constantly when he was born. Underneath his shirt, which says, “The struggle was real … NICU grad 2015,” his little chest bears “warrior marks” from the machines that kept him alive after he was born prematurely. Doctors define a premature birth as any earlier than 37 weeks of the pregnancy.
The back of his shirt has the date — 23 weeks, 5 days — and his mom, Betsy Gutierrez-Lozano, knows the stats by heart. Lucas weighed 1 pound, 5 ounces at birth; he wasn’t even a full foot long.
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“He fit right here,” 34-year-old Gutierrez-Lozano said, gesturing at her forearm. “He was what they call a micro-preemie.”
His mother, father and two sisters (who all wore preemie-themed T-shirts made by a mother of a preemie baby) gathered Friday at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach for the hospital’s 21st annual preemie reunion, where patients and their families reunite with the the doctors and nurses who cared for them in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
They were Gutierrez-Lozano’s support system during the five long months her baby was in the NICU. She didn’t get to meet him for 14 hours, she said, and when she did, “it was more wires and cables and stuff covering his face than baby,” she said. “I didn’t see his face for five days.”
The nurses taught Lucas’ 18-year-old sister, Nancy Hernandez, how to perform CPR on her baby brother when he made it to 5 pounds.
“We were afraid to hold him at first,” she said. “We were so nervous the cables would tangle.”
But now that Lucas is nearly 2 years old, he thrives without the machines. His family doesn’t have to wear hospital masks around him anymore. Instead, they wear big grins as they try to catch his every word (he can count to six on his own in Spanish) and hip-hop dance moves on camera.
Across the room, Sally Contreras smiles at all the toddlers running around the room, dancing in front of the DJ and smearing cake over their faces.
“It’s like you blink and you’re here,” she said, nodding toward Bianca, her 14-year-old daughter and Mount Sinai NICU “graduate,” who sat beside her in a dappled gray top and black choker with a Saturn pendant, an unintentional nod to the party’s “out of this world” theme.
Bianca was born by emergency Cesarean section at full term, but she was immediately shipped to the NICU because of her rare genetic condition where her body doesn’t naturally produce an essential form of collagen, a building block of skin. She was born without skin on her lower legs, one of her hands and her elbows.
Luckily for Bianca, Mount Sinai had just been certified as a level three NICU. Her doctor immediately recognized the condition and sent her off for the elevated care, said Contreras, 39. Less than 12 hours later, Contreras was begging for a wheelchair to visit her daughter.
“I was sliced in half, but I needed to see her,” she said.
For the next 41 “torturous days,” Contreras and her husband, Robert, tried to see Bianca as much as they could. Doctors gave her morphine for the nightly three-hour wound dressing routine so her screams of pain wouldn’t wake the other babies. Sometimes, her dad said, her breathing stopped when they gave her morphine.
At night, Robert said, he sneaked in and opened the incubator so he could rest his forehead against his sick daughter’s and “send her good vibes.”
Eventually, the couple got to drive their daughter home. Gradually, they learned more about her disease and found a routine to manage her pain and symptoms.
Now, the Highland Oaks middle schooler can do the three-hour wound dressing by herself in 30 minutes. This is her fifth preemie party, and even though she’s older than the rest of the crowd (and she wishes the DJ played music by 21 Pilots or Panic! At The Disco instead of kid’s music) she still likes coming.
“I get to see the people who took care of me when I was born and they can see how much I’ve improved,” she said. “Plus, the food is good.”