The 2nd Annual NICU Family Reunion is over... but the connections, the emotions, and the processing is not. I realized at its inception, that Minnesota Neonatal Foundation has a gap to fill. That what people need, in addition to expert medical care, is something intangible. Something deeper... maybe even primal. Something difficult to describe but essential to my well-being.
There is an African concept – Ubuntu - that resonates with me, particularly when I am reconnecting with the families with whom I have such a deep connection. This concept has been used in speeches and writings by Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela (and so many others!) often as a reminder of shared humanity.
The word has many translations and definitions but the definition that really makes sense to me is how it was described by President Barack Obama at Nelson Mandela’s memorial in 2013. I paraphrase it here:
“There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – a word that captures…the recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.”
At the reunion, I was brought to tears while hugging a mom I haven't seen in a long time. We both just held each other tightly as our shared memories rolled over us. There are not words to express everything we’d been through together beginning during her prenatal consultation. Then later at her son's delivery and in the NICU for the first 14 months of his life. Then again during re-hospitalizations. We have shared joy at his milestones, both medical and developmental, and we have shared sorrow when we almost watched him die after one of his many surgeries. Our paths don’t cross on a day-to-day basis and we see one another very rarely. However, we do connect, our memories are clear, crisp and as real as they ever were. The relationship is unique and unlike anything I share with dearest friends and close family. It is also shared over and over again between families in the NICU and the medical staff who joined them on the journey.
But the reunion wasn't supposed to be for me. It was supposed to be for our families, and the wonderful, dedicated, super-hero staff who work in the neonatal intensive care unit. Sometimes I forget that I am one of them. We walk this journey together, on the good days and on the bad, on the day shift and on the night shift. On the days when babies go home, and on the days when babies go to heaven.
And for one Sunday afternoon in June, we celebrate. We hug, we laugh, we cry. We take pictures, we eat food, we watch happy face after happy face step down from the face-painter's chair. We watch parents chase kids, we watch adorable toddlers, preschoolers and others splash through the puddles in colorful rain boots.
We listen to stories about ongoing health issues and resolved health issues. We celebrate subsequent pregnancies of babies who won't go to an intensive care unit. And we simply exist together in the same space, aware that our lives have been forever changed by our meeting.
Truly, I am who I am because of who we are together and I can’t thank you enough. See you at the NICU Reunion next year.
Dr. Jeanne Mrozek