Overland Park, KAN. —  For some, it’s been a year or less; for other children, it’s been decades since their Overland Park Regional Medical Center NICU experience. This year’s reunion will offer former patients, their parents, and siblings an opportunity to reconnect with many of the caregivers who became their extended families in the NICU. Several sets of multiples will attend this year’s event.

“To see these kids thriving after experiencing a challenging start to life is inspiring and a powerful testament to the advanced technology and high-quality care our babies receive,” said Thomas Lancaster, MD, board-certified neonatologist at Overland Park Regional Medical Center. “Despite being born premature, underweight or ill, these kids, their families and caregivers gather to celebrate life.”

“The NICU reunion is a celebration of the many tiny miracles that happen at Overland Park Regional Medical Center,” said Overland Park Regional Medical Center CEO Matt Sogard. “It’s an honor for us to be a part of our NICU graduates’ lives and build memories together.”

Two NICU moms and their sons share bonding experience

Jessica Stockhorst and Christie Cabanas didn’t know one another 14 years ago when they were both at the Overland Park Regional Medical Center NICU, watching over their critically ill micro-preemie sons. Although the moms had encountered one another in the unit’s hallways, they hadn’t spoken. One day they struck up a conversation and it was the beginning of a friendship that would flourish and eventually include their sons, Cooper, a surviving twin, and Henry Fearing.

“We’ve gotten the boys together several times a year ever since,” said Stockhorst, Cooper’s mom “Their friendship deepened during the pandemic, when online gaming became more of a thing since in-person hangouts were off-limits. Now Cooper and Henry play together daily online.”

Today Cooper and Henry, strong and healthy eighth graders, share a bond that most teenage boys can’t claim: they were each born at 24 weeks and spent nearly four months in the NICU in neighboring rooms. Compassionate teams of neonatal specialists cared for the tiny miracles while their parents watched them grow and eventually go home.

“The friendship with Christie was so valuable in the beginning, as we returned home to navigate life with delicate infants,” Stockhorst said. “It was helpful to have someone else who could really understand.”

Cabanas always points out Overland Park Regional Medical Center to Henry, who weighed 1 pound,1.5 ounces at birth, when they drive by.

“I remind him the hospital was his first home,” she said. “It was a rough road after he was born but the physicians, nurses, and staff in the NICU were nothing short of amazing. Everyone was kind, gentle, informative, welcoming. And to meet Jessica was a gift. Of course, neither of us knew then that 14 years later we — and our children — would be friends.”

“Thanks to the Overland Park Regional Medical Center NICU, Christie and I have two healthy, thriving teenagers,” Stockhorst said. “I am in awe daily—Cooper only weighed 1 pound, 11 ounces, so it was touch-and-go, and we didn’t have much hope. They gave us hope that he would survive and even thrive.

This year on Cooper’s 14th birthday he asked his mom if they could bring treats to the NICU “to thank the doctors and nurses who saved my life." He invited his NICU buddy, Henry, to accompany him. The two distributed donuts and hugs to the caregivers.

The Stockhorst and Cabanas/Fearing families, including Cooper and Henry, will attend Saturday’s NICU reunion, an event they’ve attended many times in the past.