On a recent cruise to the Caribbean, 5-year-old Anabel Dee Keller held an entire audience captive as she gave an impromptu dance performance. Nobody on that ship could have guessed this plucky little girl weighed a mere 3.2 pounds at birth, was resuscitated, and had severe head trauma and under-developed lungs. Doctors gave her a 50 percent chance of survival, said her mother, Alison Keller.
Anabel spent eight weeks fighting to live in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s Betty H. Cameron Women’s & Children’s Hospital.
“She was hooked up to every machine possible,” said Alison, who had three teenage boys when Anabel was born. “We couldn’t hold or touch her.”
In addition to her family, Alison’s lodestone during that time was the NICU staff. They not only provided for Anabel’s every need, but also advised, educated, and comforted her and her family.
“The neonatal staff are angels sent from above,” Alison said. “What they do is nothing short of amazing.”
Slowly, Anabel improved. She gained weight, came off the feeding tube, and passed her tests. Finally, she could go home. Then the physicians at Nunnelee Pediatric Specialty Clinics helped Anabel overcome problems with speech and physical movement delays caused by her difficult start in life. Today she is a vibrant, healthy child who loves soccer and the beach as well as dancing.
Alison, however, will never forget the time Anabel spent in NICU. She was so affected by the experience that she vowed to herself that someday, somehow she would give back to NICU. She would turn that difficult time in her life — which she says is the hardest thing she has ever gone through -- into something positive.
Today Alison is keeping her promise. She regularly volunteers at the NICU cuddling the babies whose families can’t visit them as often as they would like. Her work as volunteer cuddler is more than a “feel good” position. The human touch is essential for the healing of these infants, who may be agitated from surgery or addicted to drugs, she says.
Alison also talks with the parents. She understands that they often don’t have anyone to turn to and are as scared as she was.
“There’s nothing better than holding the babies and talking to their parents about their hope and despair,” she says. “I feel so much love. I could sit there for hours in love and joy.”
In addition to her work as a cuddler, Keller serves as a liaison between the Unit-Based NICU Practice Council, which seeks to improve the care of NICU patients, and the NICU Family Advisory Council, which provides meals, children’s story-time, and other supports for the families of NICU babies.
Alison isn’t the only one who made a made a life-changing decision after sharing Anabel’s journey. Her son, Ryan, now a third-year pre-med student at Wake Forest University, decided to pursue a career in medicine.
Ryan says he will never forget going into the NICU as a 15-year-old.
“The NICU is really a haven in some ways and a hell in some ways,” he says. “Its halls are full of rooms of caring doctors and nurses and volunteers helping babies who are smaller than a Barbie doll or a stuffed animal, lighter than a 3-pound weight.”
Ryan also volunteers at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House in Winston-Salem.
Though Ryan is leaning toward orthopedics as his field of study, he isn’t counting out neonatal care, which he says will always hold a special place in his heart.
Anabel, Ryan and Alison recorded a session for the Sunny 103.7 Caring for Kids Radiothon, which will air on August 22-23. The Radiothon supports the Caring for Kids Fund at the NHRMC Betty H. Cameron Women’s & Children’s Hospital. To make a donation, visit NHRMC.org/radiothon.