Julie Wettlaufer had been working in the emergency department at Kaleida Health's Children's Hospital for four years when her twin sons were born 15 weeks prematurely. That's when she got an intimate look at the care provided by the institution.
"What can you say about people who save your kids' lives, multiple times?" Wettlaufer said.
She and her husband, Michael O'Connor, spent countless hours with their children in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, as Rory and Gannon each underwent various crises. At one point, Gannon's lungs had collapsed, and he nearly died. In addition to problems associated with the premature birth and a subsequent diagnosis of cerebral palsy, Rory was diagnosed with liver cancer last year.
Today, both boys are happy to be at home in Orchard Park, where Gannon runs around and has temper tantrums like any other 2-year-old, and Rory receives intensive early-intervention therapy.
After five years of trying to conceive by invitro fertilization, Wettlaufer and O'Connor were ecstatic when it was successful and she became pregnant in 1998. It was not considered a high-risk pregnancy, and she was as surprised as anyone when she went into labor 25 weeks into her pregnancy that October.
"We were so lucky we were home when Julie delivered," O'Connor said, adding that the couple had just driven back from New York City the day before.
The twins, who weighed just two pounds apiece, were delivered by Caesarean section in Children's Hospital.
"I had no clue as to what ride we were in for," she said.
Rory would spend five months in the Neonatal ICU. Chronic lung disease kept him on a ventilator for two months, and additional complications included an intraventricular hemorrhage, retinopathy, gastroesophageal reflux and hypoglycemia. Gannon spent three months in the Neonatal ICU. He almost died twice as a newborn and was more critically ill than his brother. Gannon also had an intraventricular hemorrhage, gastroesophageal reflux and retinopathy. He also underwent surgery to close a duct in his heart.
Today, Gannon has above-average cognitive skills and all the expected abilities of a toddler his age. Since Rory can't hold toys in his hands, specialists have found other methods to teach him, and he has absorbed sights and sounds like any other 2-year-old.
"He really learns very well through his ears," said Rebecca Goodling, a special-education teacher.
Rory receives speech, occupational and physical therapy at home from Aurora Audiology and Personal Care Therapeutics. The Early Childhood Program at Children's provides special education.
Wettlaufer faced, many times over, the dilemma of every parent of twins who has to put one down to attend to the other's needs. She said she was torn between leaving Gannon on various monitors at home with her mother while she rushed to the hospital to be with Rory.
She is grateful to the nurses in the Neonatal ICU who were able to detect slight changes in her sons' conditions, allowing doctors to handle complications as soon as possible.
"I don't know how those nurses do it," O'Connor added. "They watch them so closely."
Wettlaufer recalls sitting in a rocking chair in the unit one night, watching Gannon's blood pressure monitor as the infant fought off sepsis, a serious blood infection.
"That was the scariest night," she said.
Another crisis for Rory came at age 17 months. Usually a happy child, he started waking up in the middle of the night crying and having trouble keeping his food down.
During a routine checkup, the doctor discovered the liver tumor. Tests revealed two tumors on each lobe, one the size of a grapefruit and the other as big as a lemon. The tumors had been pushing on Rory's stomach, making him uncomfortable and making it difficult to eat.
He underwent chemotherapy at Children's for seven months and then had surgery to remove the tumors, which had shrunk to the size of a large black olive and the tip of a pinkie finger. After surgery last October, he spent time in the intensive care unit.
"Our ICU is phenomenal. If your kid is ever sick, you have no qualms about the doctors who take care of your kids," Wettlaufer said.