Families of NICU Babies Forge Special Bonds

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Champ weighed just 1 pound 9 ounces and measured in at just 11.5 inches long when he was born at 24 weeks’ gestation.

His given name, according to his birth certificate, is “Ivory Mayhorn IV.”

But this energetic toddler with a wide smile and sweet singing voice answers to one name only – “Champ” – a moniker bestowed on him during the first few months of his life when every moment was a struggle to survive.

Champ’s mother, Kerchalyn Mayhorn, was a few weeks beyond the halfway point in her pregnancy when her son decided he was ready to make his debut. At just 24 weeks gestation, Champ was still far too young and tiny to survive well on his own outside the womb, and the medical staff at Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center rushed to administer treatment to speed up the development of his lungs and other organs to prepare his fragile little body for delivery. But Champ was insistent on arriving early and within days of her amniotic sac rupturing, Kerchalyn underwent an emergency caesarean section and gave birth to her baby boy. He weighed just 1 pound 9 ounces and measured in at just 11.5 inches long.

He was a tough boy from birth – he yanked out his own breathing tube in the incubator and continued to breathe just fine despite his underdeveloped lungs, Kerchalyn said with a chuckle. But four days after he was born, he developed a serious infection from a hole in his intestines, a common problem for babies born extremely premature. Her baby boy was loaded onto a Memorial Hermann Life Flight® helicopter and rushed to Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital for emergency surgery.

“We were told he had a 50 percent chance of surviving because the surgery was so risky with him being so small,” Kerchalyn said. “But he made it through and from them on, he continued to show us what a strong boy he is.”

Champ’s journey to recovery wasn’t an easy one. In total, he spent 6.5 months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) battling through breathing and feeding problems. But he fended off every challenge like a pro, surprising his medical team and earning him his no-nonsense nickname.

Families of NICU patients often have a different experience than others since they typically spend longer-than-average times in the hospital, and require a higher level of care over an extended period of time. For Kerchalyn, the experience of being a NICU mom changed her perspective and forged a special bond between her family and other NICU families, as well as the nurses who provided Champ with round-the-clock care. In the year and a half since Champ was discharged, Kerchalyn has maintained a relationship with many of the people she met during those long, difficult months of Champ’s early life.

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“I met one mom in the pumping room whose son had a very similar story as my son’s and we still keep in touch,” she said. “I grew especially close to two of his primary care nurses: Katie Danko and Ashley Heaton. We’ve even had play dates with them since Champ left the hospital.”

Kerchalyn recently joined a newly formed parent advisory committee that is partnering with quality improvement officials at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital and UTHealth in Houston in an effort to enhance the experience for other families facing similar situations.

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And on Sunday, Kerchalyn, her husband, Ivory Mayhorn III, and Champ attended their first NICU reunion, an annual event hosted at the Houston Zoo by Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital aimed at reuniting caregivers with their patients. As Champ scurried around the zoo along with scores of other NICU graduates, Kerchalyn basked in the joy of being surrounded by others who could relate to her family’s NICU journey.

“It’s so nice being able to be around other people who understand what you have been through,” she said. “When you have a child born that early, who stays in the NICU for as long as Champ did, you have lots of well-meaning friends and family who just can’t understand what that’s like. Being able to socialize with others that get it is a real joy.”

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See more photos of NICU graduates reuniting with their care team at this year’s 6th annual reunion.

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Tashika Varma