Five-year-old Isabella Ambrose attends the North Oaks neonatal intensive care unit reunion every year. And no offense to Santa, her favorite part is the face painting.

Isabella joined about 257 former NICU patients or “graduates” and their family members who were honored during the annual free event at the E. Brent Dufreche Conference Center on Dec. 2.

Other guests were excited to visit with Santa and will receive a keepsake photo. They were also treated to holiday music and videos, face painting, games, crafts, and refreshments provided by Chick-fil-A.

“Isabella bounded out of bed this morning and said, ‘I’m ready to go,’ ” her mother, Tara Ambrose, said. “She picked out her outfit days ago. She loves coming here and knows her way around.”

Because of respiratory issues, Isabella spent about a week in the NICU after her birth. Others, like 7-month-old Allie Hoffman, of Denham Springs, was born at 28 weeks, weighing 2 pounds, 14 ounces.

Her mother, Sunny Hoffman, went into premature labor two weeks after a life-threatening and unprecedented surgery. Allie was born en route to a hospital in Covington but was brought to North Oaks because of rapid labor — an hour from her first contraction to delivery.

“I wasn’t familiar with North Oaks, but I can’t say enough about the staff here, especially (neonatologist) Dr. Vo. Everyone really listened to me, and they were so personable,” Sunny Hoffman said.

Babies born prematurely or with a health condition require admission to the NICU, and the baby’s stay may range from a few days to as long as six months.

With extended stays, it is natural for a strong bond to form between medical personnel and the families, according to Kirsten Riney, vice president of patient services.

Since the NICU was opened in 1991, thousands of children have spent time in the unit. In 2016, 208 babies were admitted, with 136 admitted in the first six months of 2017, Riney said.

The Pritchard family has had three babies admitted to the NICU: Avery, 12; Rylee, 10; and Korey 3.

“We come every year," said their mother, Terri Pritchard. “I have a niece who is pregnant, and I told her that if it comes to pass and she needs it, this NICU is state of the art and she will get good care here."