Five and a half years later, Rachel Neubert still gets emotional when talking about leaving her son Blake in the neonatal intensive care unit after his premature birth.

“It was the hardest part of the whole process,” Neubert said. “When you prepare to have a baby, you get their room ready, clothes all picked out, and imagine the day of walking through the door with your baby after the hospital. Nothing prepares you to get discharged and then have to leave your baby at the hospital.”

“It is the hardest day,” she said, still choked with emotion. “You go home to an empty house. You’re not supposed to do it that way.”

An unexpected arrival

Born at 35 weeks, Blake entered the world Jan. 26, 2014, weighing 5 pounds, 9 ounces, after a wild 24 hours for his parents Rachel and Mike Neubert.

The day prior, Mike and a friend had just arrived in East Lansing to watch his beloved Michigan Wolverines take on rival Michigan State in a basketball game. That changed when Rachel’s mother called and said Rachel’s water broke and they needed to return to Grand Rapids. The baby was coming.

And it was snowing. Hard.

A giant winter storm dumped so much snow in Grand Rapids that the day would be considered the third biggest snowfall of the season in the city. It would be a slow trip back for Mike.

Meanwhile, at the couple’s home near Rockford, paramedics had to shovel out the driveway to get to Rachel.

Rachel’s mother joined her for the ambulance ride to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, and felt frantic with worry for her daughter.

“I was trying to keep calm,” Rachel said. “She’s a nurse, but when you’re a grandma, the nursing goes to the wayside. She was super concerned. I was trying to keep her calm, which was a nice distraction for me.”

Rachel labored for 24 hours, including three hours of pushing before opting for a C-section.

After his birth, Blake struggled to breathe as his lungs hadn’t fully developed. He soon transferred to the NICU in the Gerber Foundation Neonatal Center at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, where he would spend the next six days.

Seeing his baby with wires and tubes and in a heating bed stunned Mike.

“Nothing really prepares you for when you walk in the room for the first time and see your kid in a plastic box,” Mike said flatly. “We really didn’t get a chance to hold the kiddo that long in the beginning. That’s the worst.”

The winter storm added to the drama, as a voice over the hospital intercom informed nurses they couldn’t leave until their replacements arrived, as some couldn’t make it to work because of the snow.

The NICU nursing staff, characterized as “amazing” by the couple, helped temper their parental concern about Blake.

“They explain things, teach you how to do things,” Rachel said. “They are the ones that make the NICU experience.”

When the Neuberts returned home, the NICU nurses provided around-the-clock updates and support.

Knowing Mike missed the big Michigan versus Michigan State basketball game, the nurses made a cute Michigan outfit and sign for a special photo shoot for Blake that proclaimed, “Born a Victor, Go Blake.”

Blake progressed nicely—he kept food down, maintained a normal temperature and could breathe better.

Relieved, Rachel and Mike took their baby home.

Blake is now a healthy and precocious 5-year-old.

Coincidently, his younger brother started his young life in a similar fashion.

Easton also arrived premature at 35 weeks.

Without the drama of a snowstorm or ambulance ride, Easton was delivered via C-section June 11, 2016, weighing 5 pounds, 13 ounces—slightly bigger than Blake, but still too small and weak to safely go home.

Back to the NICU

Like Blake, Easton couldn’t breathe well on his own and needed Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) and extra care before developing the strength to go home and join his family.

Easton spent 10 days in the NICU, with daily visits from mom, dad and brother Blake.

Again, the Neuberts felt impressed with the compassionate care their family received.

They also participated in the hospital’s bead program, where a necklace is made using beads and special mementos each time the boys completed a procedure. Each boy also received a quilt and personalized booklet.

Those special touches made a big difference, they said.

On Father’s Day, nurses wrote Happy Father’s Day on a baseball for Mike with a footprint of baby Easton on the ball.

“That meant so much to me,” Mike said.

“Just everything they have available at Helen DeVos (Children’s Hospital) and in the NICU is really cool,” Rachel said.

Jane Fannon, RN, a 23-year veteran of the NICU and a parent-to-parent coordinator at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, sees firsthand the challenges families face.

She said leaving the baby the first night is the hardest, but she encourages parents to call as much as necessary. “We don’t ever feel like it’s a burden to call us,” she said.

“Developmentally, babies can’t tell time, so they never know how long mom and dad are gone, they just know when mom and dad are there,” Fannon said.

Fannon encourages skin-to-skin time during parent visits along with normal care so parents get to feel like parents while they’re in the hospital.

“The amount of care they gave us as emotional parents was fantastic,” Mike said. “We are very, very thankful.”