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One bittersweet departure from Sunnybrook’s neonatal intensive care

Mom Jodi Grimbleby and her daughter Arwynn are seen in the NICU at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Ontario Monday, December 9, 2013.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

This is part of The Globe's months-long series on the challenges facing Canadian hospitals. All of our published material has been reported with permission from staff.

Joy, fear, love are just skinny words until you embark on parenthood, the largest transformative experience in most people's lives. Getting there typically involves nothing more traumatic than fatigue and the sturm und drang of labour and delivery.

For some, though, pregnancy is as precipitous as a roller-coaster ride. When Kate Robson developed pre-eclampsia – think Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey – neonatologist Eugene Ng sat down on her bed and explained why the baby needed to be born immediately. Ng, himself the father of twins, says he is "humbled" by these touchstone conversations with parents, who "will likely hang on to every word I say for the rest of their lives."

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Nearly a decade later, that preemie is a feisty little girl, and Robson is working with Ng as the first staff parent co-ordinator in the high-tech Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Part of her role is sharing her experience with first-time parents such as Jodi and Stewart Stevenson.

Jodi arrived at Sunnybrook on July 2, threatening to deliver twins at less than 23 weeks gestation. Three weeks later, Arwynn and Briar were born by cesarean section, resuscitated and whisked into the NICU. Scared but determined, Jodi bunked in with her babies while her husband commuted daily, racking up an $800 parking tab until he discovered long-term parking.

Every time Jodi expressed any fear, a nurse, a social worker, a doctor, or Robson, would soon show up at her door. At first, Jodi worried more about Arwynn, but it soon became obvious that Briar had serious brain damage. Medical staff spent days talking with the couple as they made their terrible decision to let Briar die, supported them while they cradled their baby until she stopped breathing, and made plaster casts of her tiny hands and feet.

Having survived the worst, last week the Stevensons had the joy of taking baby Arwynn, by then a robust 7 pounds, 12 ounces, home. So many staff, including Dr. Ng, clustered round that it took more than an hour to strap Arwynn into her car seat for her first trip outside the hospital.

Arwynn was due back at Sunnybrook four days later for a follow-up visit, part of an innovative tracking program for the crucial first six years of premature babies' lives. Among the old friends eager to welcome her return will be Robson, who couldn't bear to watch when Arwynn waved her first goodbye.

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