In the neonatal intensive care unit at St. David’s Medical Center, Emmanuel Reyes Garcia is holding his baby brother Joel for the first time. The 8-year-old has never seen 7-week-old Joel, who was born at 32 weeks gestation, except in pictures his mom, Gardenia Garcia Reyes, and his dad, Vianey Reyes Ramirez, brought home with them.
Joel already loves being nestled in his big brother’s arms and begins to cry when time with Emmanuel is quickly up and he needs to be returned to the isolette.
St. David’s hosts Sibling Sundaes once a month to allow children 5 and older with current shot records to be able to meet their siblings who were born prematurely or are too sickly to go home. Even younger children get to participate in story time, a craft project and ice cream sundaes.
The monthly program started in June a both St. David’s Medical Center and is also done at St. David’s North Austin Medical Center. It’s a partnership between St. David’s and Hand to Hold, a nonprofit agency that supports families of premature babies by finding them mentor families who have gone through the same thing.
Before this program, Rhonda Sageser, director of the NICU, says siblings didn’t get to visit their brothers or sisters.
On Sunday at the start of Sibling Sundaes, Laura Romero, the family support navigator and the sibling support specialist at Hand to Hold, has the children gather on the floor of the conference room at St. David’s. She reads “No Bigger Than My Teddy Bear” and asks questions along the way.
“My baby sister is no bigger than your foot,” says Karmen Aleman, who’s 6 and is the sibling of 5-week-old Cariza, who was born at 25 weeks. Karmen came last month, a day after her sister was born, weighing a pound. Now Cariza is up to 2 pounds and has a lot less machinery around her.
Another girl says her sister was “in a hurry to see us because she came too young.”
They talk about what will happen when their siblings get to come home and how they can help. They talk about washing their hands with soap and hot water for the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday,” to help protect their brother or sister from germs.
With that, Romero takes a jar of puffy craft balls and throws them into the air to show how easily germs can spread.
“It could get your baby brother or sister sick,” Karmen says.
The big kids then head to the NICU to see their siblings while the little kids stay and make a nameplate to put by their sibling’s isolette. Before the big kids can see their siblings, everyone has to wash their hands while singing the “Happy Birthday” song.
One by one, they are taken to their siblings with a parent and a nurse accompanying them.
Ebony Green, 7, got to touch her sister Faith’s hand. Faith, who is 5 weeks old, came at 23 weeks and is not able to have Ebony hold her yet. “It feels good,” Ebony says about her sister’s hand. “It feels like old lady skin.”
Karmen, who saw her sister for the second time, got to hold her this time and give her a pacifier and kiss. “She’s so soft,” she says. “She’s really tiny, but she grew a little bit more.”
With maturity and in a matter-of-fact way, Karmen explains that her sister’s heart monitor went off during their visit. She knows her sister loves her, she says, because “she moved her arms when I was speaking to her. She was reaching out to me.”
The older kids only get a few minutes with their siblings, but the parents get to stay longer.
Back in the conference room, the kids make nameplates for their siblings and get a cup of vanilla ice cream to which they can add chocolate syrup and sprinkles.
While the older kids are excited to see their siblings in the hospital, they cannot wait for them to come home.
“When she gets out of the hospital, I’m going to rock her and say, ‘What’s up, Squirmy?’” Ebony says.