Even with the tape on her face and tube in her lung and the cartoonishly oversize diaper, Amanda King could recognize her father’s voice.
“She knew he was there,” said Chris Wallin, a nurse who cared for the tiny “26-weeker” in the neonatal intensive care unit at Georgetown University Hospital.
At first, King’s father, Jim, then a Montgomery County police officer, was terrified to hold her, but Wallin eased him into it.
“This little thing would have fit into my shoe,” he said, recalling those early days with his daughter. “The little arms are the size of my fingers. I’m afraid of breaking it.”
On Saturday, nearly 281 / 2 years after Amanda King entered the world weighing 2 pounds 1 ounce, daughter and father reunited with the nurse they credit with saving Amanda’s life during a months-long vigil filled with incubators and respirators and surgery on her tiny beating heart.
They were among hundreds of parents, children and medical staff gathered at the Medstar hospital in a sunny courtyard filled with balloons and clowns, pausing, as the hospital does each year, to marvel at the good things that came out of their wrenching shared experiences.
Katherine Mirchin, a Potomac mother, was there holding 141 / 2-month-old Chloe. She was also born at 26 weeks. Her twin brother, Neil, died after 47 days, and it was six months before Chloe finally left the neonatal intensive care unit for home. Saturday, she wore a white dress with little butterflies, frilly socks and a big sticker that read “NICU Graduate.”
Robert Mirchin, Chloe’s father, said the staff brought their 4-year-old son, Ben, also a Georgetown NICU grad, a Sesame Street video and other materials to help him deal with the loss of his new brother.
“Try to imagine for six months wondering if the baby is going to survive,” said Chloe’s grandmother, Kimberly Mirchin, who credited the staff with helping infants as well as their families. “They have a way to comfort and take care of these young parents. . . . Your life will go by and you’ll never forget a single one of them.”
Amanda King hadn’t forgotten about the nurse named Chris that had always been part of her family’s story, but she didn’t know Chris’s last name. Then, this summer, King was looking through two drawers of photos trying to find a good shot for her 10-year high school reunion. She came across an old Polaroid photo with Chris Wallin’s full name. She then put up a Facebook post looking for help tracking Wallin down. Hits kept coming up for Kid Koncepts, a childhood development company, and King gave it a go.
“Hi my name is Amanda King and I just had a quick question for Dr. Wallin,” King wrote. “Did you ever work at Georgetown University Hospital as an RN in the NICU in 1985? The reason I ask is I am searching for my Nicu Nurse. My nurse was my original Godmother.”
At one point early on, King was nearly gone. Her parents wanted to baptize her and read her last rites, and they were in a hurry. They grabbed Wallin, who stood in as godmother.
When Wallin opened King’s e-mail, she wept. After many years of saving infants’ lives, no one had ever tracked her down.
It was a joyous moment. But it had also been more than a
quarter-century, and a lot of life had happened in the meantime. King’s mother, a caterer who loved cooking for big groups of family, died eight years ago after a struggle with ovarian cancer. Wallin’s own son had been born prematurely, though he, like King, is now healthy.
King became an emergency medical technician and now works doing emergency-room registration at Suburban Hospital. She’s thinking about going back to get a master’s degree in a health-related profession. She still makes her mother’s favorite ambrosia salad and brings it to every Thanksgiving dinner.
On Saturday, King met Wallin in the Georgetown Hospital’s relocated NICU, with wailing babies and beeping monitors and light panels set up to warm the infants. King showed her pictures of her life — her college roommate, her mother. She showed Wallin an old Ziploc bag filled with a little red-flowered dress and the tiny knitted cap that fell over her eyes in the hospital.
Siva Subramanian, the chief of neonatal medicine, who was one of King’s doctors, said 26-weekers had about a 15 percent chance of survival when King was born in 1985.
Now, with new medicine to help preemies with underdeveloped lungs and other improvements, that’s up to 80 to 90 percent, he said.
The doctors said “I was supposed to be short,” King remembers, maybe 5 feet 2 inches. She ended up almost 5 feet 9 inches.
“She definitely outgrew me,” Wallin said. “She used to fit in the palm of my hand, practically. Not anymore.”