Born extremely premature at 24 weeks, Jaelee Hill suffered a cascade of medical complications that kept her hospitalized for almost 16 months.
She was so ill with pulmonary problems that at one point, her mother, Jennifer, was told to prepare for the worst.
But on Thursday morning, the staff of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Akron Children’s Hospital bid a bittersweet farewell to Jaelee.
The medical transport team took her down the elevator and lifted her into a waiting intensive care ambulance destined for their home near Canton. The sun was out and a light breeze was blowing. It was Jaelee’s first taste of the outdoors.
“The poor girl has had a rough go of it,” Jennifer said. “It was hit and miss for a long time, but she pulled through.”
Weighing 1 pound, 6 ounces at birth, Jaelee had multiple lung problems, the most serious being pulmonary hypertension, which starves the lungs of blood supply. She also developed lung damage brought on by long-term mechanical ventilation, and suffered from retinopathy and glaucoma that required 3 eye surgeries.
She went home Thursday a healthy-looking 19.5 pounds, with a purple ribbon in her hair. She was tethered to a portable ventilator. NICU nurse Leah Kinney climbed in the ambulance to ride home with her. Leah was among a half-dozen nurses who saw Jaelee off. They wore purple t-shirts with “Jaelee’s Favorite Nurse” emblazoned across the chest, and No. 24 on the back – representing her 24 weeks at birth.
“I’m super excited for them, but a little sad,” Leah said. “It’s like sending a family member home.”
Before departure, the nurses huddled around Jaelee in the NICU. They entertained her with talk and play. Some fought back tears as they said goodbye.
Jennifer, a single mom, had practically lived in the NICU since April 2018, when Jaelee was transferred from Aultman Hospital in Canton.
“I stayed there 6 nights a week, left for work from there and came back after work,” she said. “On Saturday nights, I went home to do our laundry.”
Jennifer said she was sad to leave a NICU staff she had grown close with. But she was eager to start a new life at home with Jaelee. She is still amazed to be going home at all, when she thinks about how sick Jailee was.
“These small babies are fighters. They’re tough,” she said.
She walked out of the hospital Thursday with a message on the back of her t-shirt: “Peace Out NICU.”
The nurses walked out with her to the ambulance waiting outside the Emergency Department with its engine running. They waved goodbye. Nurse Leah, seated next to Jaelee, gently patted her chest and waved back to them as the ambulance doors closed. Jaelee was headed home.