Holiday tradition feeds body and soul in the NICU
by Jessica Langdon
OVERLAND PARK — To say 5-year-old George Liebergen loves trains might be a bit of an understatement.
So it’s no surprise he was far too engrossed in yet another viewing of his all-time-favorite movie — “The Polar Express” — to notice the holiday plans his family was mapping out all around him.
Yet George’s early arrival at 35 weeks gestation in November 2008 actually fueled this flurry of activity that unfolds at his home every fall.
Each November, his parents — Adam and Laura Liebergen, members of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood — organize a Thanksgiving feast with all the trimmings for families with babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at Overland Park Regional Medical Center.
George spent his first nine days in that very place.
And every year since then, other families like the Liebergens have joined them in serving up a traditional meal in an untraditional place.
Because of George, the Liebergens understand what even a short stay in the NICU can feel like, especially around the holidays.
During George’s stay, his parents met families facing far more precarious situations than theirs and came to realize that when babies are born weeks — and sometimes months — early, those tiniest “micro preemies” have a hard fight ahead of them. Survival is anything but certain.
So breaking away to share a Thanksgiving meal with family often isn’t feasible for parents in the NICU.
Some don’t have anyone nearby.
Some won’t risk carrying germs from a gathering back to a fragile infant.
And some simply don’t want to spend the holiday anywhere but with their babies.
“For a lot of mothers, it’s very hard to be separated from your baby, especially this time of year when it’s so focused on families and children,” said Laura. “For a lot of those parents whose babies are very small or sick, you don’t know if you’re going to have next year. This might be your only holiday with your child.”
That heart-wrenching reality hit home again with the Liebergen family recently when their niece Charlotte, born in April at 25 weeks at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, lived only 11 weeks.
In her memory and in George’s honor, the Liebergens also collected hats and blankets for babies in the NICU this year. Laura delivered the tiny knitted caps when the family arrived at the hospital to add the turkeys to the spread on Nov. 28.
Small gesture, big impact
As a Catholic family, the Liebergens consider their annual Thanksgiving Day delivery sort of their pro-life ministry.
Through it, they honor the extremely small or sick babies who are often tucked away from where the world can see them. And they provide a moment of respite to the moms and dads of these tiniest among us.
Every baby in the NICU has a unique story. Some stay for just a few hours; others, for months.
And while some simply need a little extra time and TLC to thrive, others face life-threatening circumstances.
In November 2008, the Liebergens were planning for a normal Thanksgiving with their two older children — Joseph and Camille — and anticipating George’s arrival in December.
Then, on Nov. 19, Laura’s water broke.
George entered the world early the morning of Nov. 20. Even though he weighed six and a half pounds, he didn’t quite look like a full-term newborn. More importantly, he wasn’t breathing well.
In the NICU, he was placed on a ventilator, hooked to monitors, and sedated.
The two weeks he was expected to stay sounded like forever to Laura.
Still, all it took was a short walk down the hall for the severity of other families’ situations to sink in.
“I can still name every single baby that was down that hall,” said Laura.
They met one family the day the parents were told their tiny baby would be taken off life support.
They met another woman who had gone into labor hours from her hometown.
Those were just a few of the stories that touched the Liebergens and made them want to do something.
It didn’t take Adam long to decide what: They had a turkey at home just waiting to be prepared.
So that first year — while George was still a baby in the NICU — Adam grilled the turkey and brought Thanksgiving dinner in for the other families to share.
“You don’t have to do a big thing to make a difference,” said Adam.
Indeed, their small gesture made a huge impact.
And a holiday tradition was born.
One big family
When the Liebergens decided to do it again for Thanksgiving 2009, they didn’t have to look far for help. And so the tradition has continued.
“You fed us last year. We’ll help you this year,” they’ve heard over and over again.
Now, Adam, an engineer, has it down to a fine science.
The Liebergens provide the turkey — they’ve upped the number from one to two since the hospital’s NICU expanded — and others pitch in side dishes and more.
Adam rises hours before the sun to start grilling the birds.
When Circle of Hope NICU Foundation — a nonprofit organization designed to provide more assistance year-round to families of babies in Overland Park Regional’s NICU — formed in 2011, its members were thrilled to lend a hand.
“We’re lucky enough to be able to help out,” said Katie Gonzalez, who is part of Circle of Hope and also a parishioner of St. Michael the Archangel. “But Laura really is our fearless leader of this Thanksgiving event.”
Gonzalez’s son Matthew was born 16 weeks early in 2011. He weighed one pound, five ounces, and measured 11 inches long.
Father Bill Porter, then-pastor of St. Michael the Archangel, baptized him in the incubator with sterile hospital water.
Matthew spent 121 days in the hospital.
“He’s such a miracle — he really is,” said Gonzalez of her son, who will turn three in March. “When he was born, we were told that he had a 40 percent chance of survival, and — if he survived — he had a 95 percent chance of severe disability.”
Despite requiring some speech therapy, Matthew is an otherwise perfectly healthy toddler, playing right alongside his two older brothers and younger sister.
Because of the bonds created among other families and the hospital staff, Gonzalez considers the months Matthew spent there — while difficult — one of the greatest times of her life.
“We still have friends whose children we celebrate with them. We have friends whose children have passed away, unfortunately,” said Gonzalez. “And it creates such a tight-knit circle, a tight-knit family.”
‘Best start . . . ever’
Having Matthew in the NICU during the spring and summer months was hard enough on Gonzalez.
What with worrying about the baby, wanting to be at the hospital, caring for other children at home, and meeting the demands of her job, she knows firsthand how parents are pulled in many different directions.
“Then to have the layer of the holidays on top of that, I can’t even imagine,” she said.
So she always arrives at the hospital on Thanksgiving with a twinge of sadness in her heart.
But she finds it eases quickly as parents reunite with one another and the nurses.
Families of NICU graduates pile dish after dish on the tables — mashed potatoes, stuffing, pies — anything a traditional family gathering might entail.
Although tables are set up for the diners, parents can eat at their convenience.
“And then when the families start coming in to eat, it’s so amazing to see their faces and the smiles on their faces,” said Gonzalez. “It’s the best start to Thanksgiving. Ever.”
Even though children can’t attend (it’s the season for colds, flu and RSV, so little ones aren’t allowed in the NICU), there are many happy reunions.
“We love to catch up with them and see what they’re doing,” said Margaret Meier, NICU director at Overland Park Regional. “The nurses absolutely love it. You can see lots of hugs. They’re just really happy to see everybody back. It’s just a really nice way for a family who’s been through a difficult time to give back because they’re in a good spot now.”
Laura remembers how dreary the November weather outside George’s window seemed and how dark the view was.
She hopes this simple gesture from families who know what it’s like to have babies in these rooms brightens the holiday season a bit.
Today, 5-year-old George, now big brother to 3-year-old Cole, has never known a Thanksgiving that — for his family — didn’t start in the NICU.
Despite some residual complications from his premature birth, the family described him for a NICU window display as a train-loving, loud, active, growing, thriving and joyful 5-year-old.
“We are grateful for your loving care!” the Liebergen family wrote to the NICU staff.
And the NICU staff — like the families they serve — are grateful to the Liebergens, who plan to keep their holiday tradition barreling full steam ahead. In fact, they’re already looking forward to next year.
After all, it’s a cause that’s close to their hearts, and they know they have much to be thankful for.
“It’s amazing to think that this child couldn’t breathe at birth,” said Laura. “You don’t realize . . . just . . . how much of a miracle it is that any of them survive what they go through.
“And a lot of times I’ll just sit there and listen to him breathe.”