A NICU Christmas gift

Twenty-six weeks is exactly half of a calendar year. It is also fourteen weeks short of the “normal” period of time for a human pregnancy. But being just 26 weeks old didn’t stop Andrew Ossenbeck from deciding that it was definitely time to greet the world.

Andrew’s mother, Dr. Ki Park, who was in her fourth year of her cardiology fellowship when she became pregnant, describes her pregnancy as perfectly normal. Now a UF Health cardiologist, Dr. Park was on rounds in UF Health Shands Hospital on Christmas Eve in 2013 when she felt what she thought were false labor pains. Known as Braxton-Hicks contractions, false labor is a common occurrence in pregnancy. However, when the contractions didn’t stop, Dr. Park decided to have an obstetrician check to make sure the baby was all right. Andrew, as it turned out, was intent on arriving early. Despite pharmaceutical therapy to stop the contractions, Dr. Park delivered Andrew on Christmas Day.

With Andrew’s early arrival came a host of complications. Weighing just 2.2 pounds, his lungs weren’t fully formed, requiring him to be intubated. He was so small that his father, Michael Ossenbeck, could fit his wedding ring around Andrew’s arm. He couldn’t feed properly, his tiny heart had to be monitored, and he was anemic. Luckily for Andrew, he was born at UF Health Shands Hospital, where exceptional neonatal care was just steps away.

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Park and Ossenbeck can smile now, recalling the ups and downs of Andrew’s journey. “He was in the NICU for 127 days,” Dr. Park recalled. During his stay in the NICU, Andrew underwent three rounds of intubation, had several blood transfusions, fought his way through collapsed lungs, necrotizing enterocolitis, and developed retinopathy. “Feeding him became an art form,” his father says. “I would think I had just gotten it right, and then he would stop breathing and his heart rate would drop. We couldn’t take him home until we could feed him consistently without having this happen. We had a countdown clock of sorts. He came home May 1, nearly a month after what would have been his original due date.”

Ossenbeck and Park credit Andrew’s survival to the extraordinary care he received in the NICU and the family support they had around them. “The NICU nurses, doctors and other staff were amazing,” Park says. “No matter how many questions we had, not matter how often we called, they were always willing to talk to us.” Park needed to return to her fellowship, and Ossenbeck, a high school chemistry and physics teacher, was trying to juggle his schedule as well. Their parents and siblings helped keep watch over Andrew’s progress when they couldn’t be there, but everyone took even greater comfort in the care Andrew was receiving.

“I think what I remember the most is how positive the NICU staff were,” Park says. “There were never any surprises with what was going on with Andrew, and no matter how bleak things looked to us, they were always positive and upbeat.” Ossenbeck also credits the team approach to Andrew’s care. “We were able to work with the pharmacy team to figure out what medications he needed. The physical therapists showed us how to keep developing his muscle tone. All of the attendings were really great about involving us in decision-making. Nurses and therapists like Melanie Kelley, Camille Culver, Ashley Grant, Laura Davis, Nicole Copenhaver, Keliana O’Mara, and Katherine Kisilewicz kept us informed and involved,” Ossenbeck says. “Drs. Burchfield and Neu were always there for us, even if we called late at night.”

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Today, Andrew is a happy, healthy, 2-year-old boy who loves cars and playing outside. Ossenbeck, now a stay-at-home dad, says Andrew’s progress is wonderful. “He reaches the important milestones in his own way and he is doing great. You would never know that he went through all that he did.”

The family is very supportive of the planned expansion of the NICU. “Andrew had to be moved several times between NICU neighborhoods,” Park recalled. “While it was good that everything was right there, it was crowded. There were many babies there, and often we were back to back with other families.”

The UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit expansion will begin in January 2016, and will almost double the size of the NICU, going from 12,600 square feet to 20,800, and from 52 beds to 68. Improvements in family privacy, sibling play space, and transitional space to help parents acclimate to the needs of their baby are all part of the expansion plan. One aspect that won’t change, however, is the commitment to exceptional care. “We always knew that everyone was in there with Andrew, doing a lot of good,” Park and Ossenbeck said. “That’s why this expansion project is really important.”