Rick and Laura Welsh had just returned from a trip to Hawaii and were happily awaiting the birth of their first child.

It was 1992, Laura was 26 weeks pregnant and her pregnancy had progressed normally. With more than three months to go until the baby’s due date, the couple were sure they had plenty of time to prepare for the arrival of their firstborn. Then, the unexpected happened: Laura went into early labor.

When the Welshes first arrived at Saddleback Medical Center’s emergency room, doctors did what they could to halt Laura’s contractions. Eventually, however, it was determined that labor had progressed too far. The decision was made to deliver the baby. “All of a sudden, the room was full of people—the obstetrician, the nurses and the whole NICU team,” Rick recalls. “You could tell that everyone knew exactly what they were doing.”

Lifesaving Care

Nearly 3,000 babies are born at the Women’s Hospital at Saddleback Medical Center each year. About 10 percent of these births involve premature or medically fragile infants. “The hospital has one of the only level III neonatal intensive care units (NICU) in the area, meaning it has the ability to care for the sickest and most fragile infants,” says neonatologist Ron Naglie, M.D. “Saddleback Medical Center has also developed a reputation for excellence in perinatology—the management of high-risk pregnancies. As a result, practitioners from other hospitals routinely refer patients expecting multiples, especially triplets, to us for care and delivery.” However, many women who have no risk factors also choose Saddleback Medical Center-Laguna Hills because they feel comfortable knowing the NICU is available, if needed. “The unit is staffed and equipped to treat infants requiring immediate, advanced care that’s not available at many other hospitals,” says Dr. Naglie.

At birth, Thomas weighed just 2 pounds, 8 ounces and was the size of his father’s hand.

Shockingly Small

When baby Thomas was born, he weighed just 2 pounds, 8 ounces. “He was shockingly small—about the size of my hand,” Rick says. “Then, over the next few days, he lost nearly one-third of his weight. We called him the Incredible Shrinking Baby.” Thomas also suffered from breathing problems and apnea—a condition that sometimes caused him to stop breathing. “Respiratory problems are one of the most common complications of premature birth, because the baby’s lungs haven’t had a chance to fully develop,” says Dr. Naglie. “Fortunately, because of advances in treatment, we’re able to manage those issues much better than in the past.” Thomas spent almost 11 weeks in the NICU. “We got to know the staff really well,” says Laura. “We were so impressed with them, their dedication and professionalism, and how deeply they cared about every baby and family.”

After Thomas went home, he began to grow and thrive. Three years later, Laura was pregnant again. “Everything went fine, until 31 weeks—and we were back in the NICU,” Laura says. “A lot of the nurses and doctors from our first experience were still there and we had complete confidence in them. It was very comforting.” Baby Aubrey weighed a relatively hefty 3 pounds, 13 ounces when she was born. “After Thomas, Aubrey seemed huge to us,” Rick says with a laugh. Although Aubrey initially had some respiratory issues, she was able to go home after four weeks.

Today, both former “preemies” are healthy and thriving: Thomas, now 17, plays for his high school baseball and soccer teams, surfs and spends summers working as a lifeguard. Aubrey, 14, is on her school’s soccer, softball and surf teams.

The family returns to the NICU frequently to visit. “We’ve always stayed in touch with the staff,” says Laura. “They’ve had such a tremendous impact on our lives and on our children’s lives. We feel incredibly fortunate.”