North Oaks Medical Center’s annual NICU Reunion on Dec. 5 brought about 300 former patients, or graduates and their families together with NICU staff at the E. Brent Dufreche Conference Center, located within North Oaks Diagnostic Center in Hammond.

Graduates visited and took photos with Santa Claus and enjoyed holiday music and videos, face painting, storytelling, games, craft-making and refreshments, a news release said. Each child received coloring books and crayons.

Twenty-five North Oaks Health System staff members volunteered at the event.

With the extended lengths of stay some babies require as a result of premature birth or health conditions, strong bonds often form between medical personnel and families.

“We see these children at their worst and see the families going through difficult times. As these children heal, we enjoy the comfort of knowing they go home healthy with their parents,” lead Nurse Practitioner Scott Landry said. “It gives us inspiration to continue fighting for them.”

Since the NICU was opened in 1991 at North Oaks Medical Center, thousands of children have spent time there.

Brittany Carey and her husband, Warren Sr., brought their 2-year-old son, Warren “Deuce” Jr., who spent 98 days in the NICU after he was born weighing 1 pound, 7 ounces.

“I wanted Deuce to see all the nurses, and I wanted them to see him,” Brittany Carey said. “We’ll come every year. They got to know him for three months and almost didn’t want to send him home.”

Also returning as a graduate was Kellie Husser, who spent two weeks in the NICU suffering from an infection and requiring a blood transfusion.

Husser and her mother, Shannon, were the first to arrive at the reunion, following her Sweet 16 birthday party the night before. Mother and daughter have attended the reunion every year since Husser’s birth.

“We plan our calendars around this reunion. Even when she’s married with children of her own, we’re coming back to it,” Shannon Husser said. “They (the NICU) saved her life. It was touch and go. We are so thankful.”