Mercyhealth's NICU celebrates 33 years

ROCKFORD, Ill. (WIFR) -- A local hospital is celebrating 33 years of saving lives in their Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

"I mean it was scary. It was really, really scary," says Rachael Simonson, reflecting on her daughter's experience in Mercyhealth's NICU.

On March 18th 2016, Leah Simonson was born, however, that was only the beginning of a long string of hospital visits for her family. "She was in the NICU for 121 days," says Simonson. Leah had three brain bleeds, and needed surgery on her heart, eyes, and repairs on a hernia.

"I would come in every day in the morning and I would stay until about 4 o'clock, and then my husband would come in and stay with her through the evenings."

To support families like the Simonson's, Mercyhealth connects parents with others who are going through the same struggle by holding support groups.

"Only a mom, only a dad who has stood by an icolete and looked at their baby struggling to survive can really know what that feels like and understand what that's all about," says NICU Family Support Coordinator, Ann Herkert.

"They are in a place that they never expected to be. It's scary, and it's a life-altering experience for them," says NICU Nurse Manager, Pam Allen.

That way families like the Simonson's can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

"You really don't know if everything's going to be okay or how it's going to turn out, so it's nice to have someone to talk to about those things."

All babies who leave the NICU program still have regular checkups to make sure they are developing properly after their release. Mercyhealth staff say their biggest chance in the last 33 years has been their ability to monitor the way their patients' brains develop.