More than 230 guests visited with Santa Claus, Dr. Ivan Villalta and North Oaks Women & Children’s staff members at the annual Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Reunion on Dec. 6.

Former NICU patients, or “graduates,” and their family members were the guests of honor at the event in the E. Brent Dufreche Conference Center, within North Oaks Diagnostic Center, in Hammond. The children enjoyed hearing stories, having their faces painted, creating crafts, listening to holiday music and eating refreshments, a news release from North Oaks said. Each child also took a keepsake photo with Santa Claus.

Sometimes, a baby may be born prematurely or with a health condition that requires admission to North Oaks Medical Center’s NICU, the release said. In those cases, the baby’s NICU stay may range from a few days to as long as six months.

“Dr. Villalta is wonderful. I really love the staff here and try to keep up with them through social media. I really couldn’t have asked for better care,” said Mandy Davis, of Livingston. Her daughter, Sherrie Efferson, 3, was born two months prematurely and weighed just 4 pounds and 11 ounces. She spent 16 days in the NICU.

Tara Ambrose’s two daughters, 2 1/2-year-old Isabella and 5-year-old Chloe, were both admitted to the NICU, the release said. She brings the children to the annual event to celebrate with the staff how much they have grown.

“We like to visit the staff and the girls have such a good time at the party,” Ambrose said. “We were really treated well here.”

With lengths of stay often long, it is natural for strong bonds and friendships to form between families and NICU staff, according to Kirsten Constantino, North Oaks assistant vice president of Patient Services.

“Each year, we look forward to seeing our former patients and celebrating their development with their families at the NICU Reunion,” Constantino said. “It’s a joyful way to start the holiday season.”

Nineteen North Oaks Health System staff members volunteered their time to help host the event, the release said.

The North Oaks NICU is ranked among the top 25 percent in the U.S., according to the prestigious Vermont Oxford Study in its review of patient outcomes in selected areas.

For information about the NICU at North Oaks Medical Center or any of the health system’s services for women and children, call the North Oaks Business Development Department at (985) 230-6647 or visit .