By Mark Kimmel, UNC Health Foundation
It’s well established that UNC Children’s has set a standard for world-class care for newborns and their families.
Though the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) provides care for more than 900 infants each year, unfortunately many patients and families are sometimes turned away due to space constraints.
The much-needed expansion of the Level 4 NICU in Chapel Hill is well underway, with new state-of-the-art rooms expected to be ready in early 2024. The fully renovated space will allow more newborns to be brought in sooner to receive care for needs related to premature birth, congenital anomalies, illnesses requiring complex surgery, feeding problems and more.
Families that previously spent time in the NICU have made generous philanthropic gifts towards these new spaces to enhance the experience for others during, what can be an emotionally challenging time.
Here are two stories of families that chose to give back. The care they received from UNC Children’s continues to resonate with them today, creating lasting memories of loved ones – and inspiring them to help ensure the best possible start for all newborns.
The Moffat Family
Debra and Craig Moffats’ connection to UNC Children’s began in 2013, when their twins, John and Gene, were born at 29 weeks and spent 50 days in the NICU.
In 2014, the Moffats had another son, Aven, who was born at 27 weeks and was cared for in the NICU for 87 days. He also had a cardiac arrest at six months and spent several weeks in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.
Debra, who has been involved on the Newborn Critical Care Center Family Advisory Board since 2014, credits the hospital with saving their children’s lives numerous times.
“We had three instances where our children had to be resuscitated,” said Debra.
In 2021, tragedy struck when Aven developed an illness after swimming in a North Carolina lake. He became the first person ever seen at UNC for Naegleria Fowleri, a brain-eating amoeba that is present in all bodies of fresh water and has a 99 percent fatality rate.
“Although our youngest son did pass away, because of the care UNC provided we were gifted six unbelievable amazing years with him,” Debra said. “Had the doctors and nurses at UNC not fought as hard as they had, and did everything that they could have, we would not have had that opportunity.”
Debra has also been on the expansion committee for the new NICU and has worked to improve the experience for families that have extended stays at the hospital.
Debra described the NICU facility at the time that her family received care. “When my kids were born, we were in a pod.” A pod is an open space for infant care that is shared by several families. “I realized how important having a private room is for the family. We’ve also worked hard on the parent waiting room, making that friendly and inviting and a space to hold activities.”
Other new amenities will include additional cabinet space, refrigerators and the Angel Eye camera system that allows families to see their children from outside the hospital by simply logging into an app.
“Having a space that you can make your own means a lot,” added Debra. “Simply being able to hang a family picture will allow doctors and nurses to see into our lives outside of the hospital. It will help form connections with staff and help bring joy to families in the hospital during long stays.”
The Moffatt’s generous donation to the expansion included naming a twin room in honor of Aven, a touching way to create a lasting remembrance of their son.
“Providing a donation back to the hospital is our way of saying thank you,” said Debra. “We’re just so eternally grateful for saving Aven and giving us the years that we did have (with him). I just can’t think of a better place to give.”
To learn more about Aven’s story and the foundation started by the family – Amazing Aven’s Quest For Amoeba Awareness – please visit amazingaven.org.
The Brown Family
Rick and Dr. Whitney Brown of Fairfax, Virginia, have also been touched by UNC Children’s in a profound way. In 2007, Whitney went into labor at 24 weeks with twin boys, Dean and Thomas. The boys were born prematurely and spent a combined 128 days in the NICU.
It was June 30, 2007, and the couple was celebrating their wedding anniversary from opposite sides of the planet. Rick was deployed in the Army to Iraq and Whitney was beginning her second year as a Pulmonary and Critical Care fellow at UNC Hospitals. FaceTime was still about three years away, so they shared a phone call on their special day and according to Rick, “everything was good” when the call ended.
The situation quickly changed when Rick received a Red Cross message the following day that Whitney was going into labor. “How can this be? I thought they had the wrong guy,” said Rick.
The news was true, and he was sent home on emergency leave. He missed the birth of his twin boys as he traveled back to North Carolina and the following few days became a fight for their children’s lives.
“We witnessed things in that NICU that to me were miracles, a combination of people performing miracles – the doctors and the nurses,” said Rick.
Dean passed away after 20 days from multiple complications, and Thomas, who spent two months on a ventilator, survived 108 days in the NICU and is now a healthy 16-year-old.
“I think the family centered care was always spectacular,” said Whitney. As an adult pulmonary critical care doctor that taught me a lot about what care can be like.”
Thomas was never admitted to the hospital again, yet when the Brown’s had their daughter Allison three years later, the family once again encountered the NICU. Allison was nearly full term, but an unexpected breathing problem placed her in the care of Dr. Karen Wood, MD, a familiar face that had taken care of the twins years earlier.
“It was very comfortable and comforting because we knew everyone,” said Whitney. “It was a totally different situation because Allison wasn’t even on oxygen. She was just being observed and was only in the NICU for about eight hours.”
Not long after Allison was born, the family moved to Virginia as Whitney, a 1999 UNC graduate, began work at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Currently, she splits her professional time between the Inova Adult Cystic Fibrosis Program and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
The Brown’s have loyally supported the NICU in recent years. They provided gifts for a lactation room and the Angel Eye cameras, and created a lasting tribute to Dean in the UNC Children’s Smith Family Butterfly Canopy.
In 2022, after learning about the NICU expansion, the family chose to make their largest gift to date in gratitude for the care their children received at UNC. Like the Moffatt family, Rick and Whitney selected one of the new twin rooms. Their gift will enhance future hospital stays for families from North Carolina and beyond.
“It was a life-changing experience, with incredible peaks and, incredible valleys, but we’re forever grateful to UNC and the NICU,” said Rick. “This is a way to memorialize Dean. It’s a way to give back for the amazing things that the nurses and doctors did while we were there.”
These stories are of connections made between compassionate healthcare workers and families enduring unimaginably difficult times. Their gifts are a testament to their strength and the love for their families.
Do you have a personal connection to neonatal care and want to support our new NICU in a meaningful way? Naming opportunities are available. Please contact UNC Children’s Director of Development Jinhee Lee at email@example.com or 856-534-0140.