Despite forecasts of rain and shamal winds, parents and children arrived at the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi last week for a rather special party. Weather warnings were not going to dissuade these families from attending, as the journey they had endured up to this point was far more challenging than rain or sand storms. These families were gathering to celebrate the fact that their desperately sick and premature babies had survived to become healthy "graduates" of the Corniche Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit.
Every year for the last four years, the staff of the Corniche Hospital neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) have held a party to celebrate the lives of the children who have passed through their unit and to give the parents and medical staff a chance to meet again. The Corniche Hospital handles a staggering 10,000 deliveries per year and about 10 per cent of the babies delivered are admitted to the NICU. There are currently 50 intensive-care cots in the NICU, but plans exist to increase this number.
"Every year I cry!" exclaimed Chris Cordell, a charge nurse in the NICU, wiping away a tear. "I've started already. We see these children when they are sick, then when they are fine, they leave us. When they come back, happy and healthy, it's a gift!" As she speaks, the pretty little girl by her side looks up at her questioningly. This is Farah el Sakka, the only survivor of quadruplets born in the Corniche Hospital six years ago, three months prematurely. Farah was born weighing just 1.1kg and was in the NICU for 55 days. "It was very hard for us," recalls Zaina, Farah's mother. "We had a lot of support from the sisters in the NICU. The care was great, and it still is. Any time we need to talk to them, they are still so interested."
Farah weighed 1.8kg when she left the NICU and her difficulties did not end there. "It took a lot of effort, because she weighed so much less than other babies. She didn't grab for things until a lot later, her father and I had to teach her to behave like her age. By the time she was one year old, she was normal. She's perfect now and always gets full marks at school." The El Sakkas have another daughter, now aged four, but they bring Farah on her own to the reunion. "She comes here and she knows she is not like other children. She is special".
Our conversation is interrupted by nursing staff shouting out to each other "Mighty Joe is here! Mighty Joe is here!". We turn to see a little toddler being carried by his father. He looks around bright-eyed but slightly bemused at all the attention he is receiving. His father puts him down and he shoots off, determined to see what is under the table. "He never stops!" Laughs his father, running after him.
"Mighty" Joe, so nicknamed by the nursing staff after the film, Mighty Joe Young, in which a baby gorilla survives against the odds and grows up to be huge and healthy, was born four months premature, at 24 weeks, and weighed only 680 grams. His mother, Samia Saab, describes the four months he spent in the NICU as "devastating". "They were really tough times, particularly the first month because his lungs had not yet matured." They were not sure he would survive until the day his mother describes as a "miracle". "It was day 29, he was so tired from the nebuliser and we weren't sure he would make it. Then the doctor changed his medication and the next day he started to improve. It changed the whole story for us."
Standing with the family is the man who looked after Joe, Dr Adil Shubbar, a senior consultant neonatologist. "We never give up. We are constantly trying to help them survive, and survive intact," he says of the children who end up in his care. The Saab family came last year to the party and the decision to come again was easy. "What the people here did for us is much more effort than coming to a reunion," says Samia.
The gardens gradually fill up with children and their parents - different ages and different nationalities, but all united by the traumas they went through when their children were born, not to mention their gratitude to the Corniche Hospital's staff. Around the gardens, amid the chatter and laughter of the children and the music blaring out from a game of musical chairs, parents embrace the doctors and nurses on whom they had come to rely, emotionally and professionally, during those difficult first weeks.
Nurses wipe away tears, bending down to talk to their former charges and admiring how much they have grown, remembering the days when they were so tiny they could have been held in the palm of a hand, days when their lives hung precariously in the balance. As the sun came out, parents sit, chatting and swapping advice. "Many of the parents in the unit bonded with each other. They all experienced the same problems and helped each other," comments Sue Goodson, a senior charge nurse in the NICU. "It's a very emotional day. It's great to see them all and the ones you thought would never go home are now normal and happy. It makes it all worthwhile."
The day also helps the medical staff at the hospital understand what life is like for the families once they leave the NICU, as Sue Goodson explains. "When the babies go, wrapped up in their blankets, most of them we never see again. Today, by talking to the parents we see how they developed, whether there were any problems when they got home - some we can help them with. It helps us understand what it is like to leave the NICU."
As people take their places for lunch, Shirley Hargreaves, the clinical service manager of the NICU, welcomes everyone and reads out a poem she has written about the NICU experience, Together. After Dr Shubbar's welcome address, some yellow balloons are released by Dr Andrew Meeks, the chief of service for the neonatology department, with the help of two of the "graduates" of the NICU, one of whom is Ahmed al Shadafan.
Ahmed is a legend among the NICU staff. Not only was he the lowest-weight baby they have ever attended to - 470 grams, less than a bag of sugar - but all three of his brothers and sisters have also spent time in the NICU. Ahmed's younger brother, Abdullah was delivered pre-term at 26 weeks, and spent three months in the unit. A few years later, twins, Ansaf and Saif, were born prematurely, weighing just over a kilo each. They also spent three months in the NICU.
"I've spent a lot of time with the NICU nurses and doctors," says their mother, Jamila al Hasan. Ahmed was delivered at 25 weeks by Caesarean section when the doctors became concerned about his mother's high blood pressure. "He was very sick when he was delivered because he was so small," she remembers. "They told me he would probably not survive. I found the smallest clothes I could and the nurses wrapped them round him to cover him. Sometimes he would stop breathing and everyone would cry with me about it, but, alhamdulillah, he is OK. He is nine years old now and top of his class at school."
Remarkable though Ahmed's story is, similar stories were being shared by the parents around the tables at the party. Tarek Nizameddin was full of praise for the way the staff in the NICU looked after his premature twins, Ali and Alissar, three years ago. "They did a great job. We were there for five hours every day and we saw how they treated all the other children, the way they dealt with them medically, but also they would sing to them and cuddle them."
He then recalls: "The first 15 days, we didn't know if they would survive. We were there for nearly three months, which is a long time. The medical staff became part of our family. That we wouldn't see them again was very strange. That is the importance of reunions like this. They all did a great job and they should see the result". He then admits that he was overcome with emotion when he went back to the hospital to collect the invitation to today's party. "It was a strange feeling - I was about to cry," he says.
Although their start in life was fraught with difficulties, the majority of the children who have benefited from the NICU's care have grown up to be active, able, children no different to others of their own age. One harried mother, trying to convince her three-year-old boy to sit down and eat says, with a laugh: "You feel so sorry for them when they are in the incubator. Then they grow up and can be so naughty. You remind yourself how grateful you are, but they can still drive you mad?"