Gary Kemerer is a happy 8-year-old boy. He plays right field and pitcher on his community baseball team, the Adrian Lookouts, and participates in a slew of other sports, including golf, basketball, soccer, or really anything with a ball, according to his father, Ken Kemerer.
If you didn’t know about Gary’s past experience in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at ProMedica Toledo Children’s Hospital — where he spent the first three months of his life — you would never suspect that he wasn’t always this active.
Early Days in the NICU
From the very first ultrasound of the Kemerer twins, Gary and Jacob, it was clear there were some setbacks, particularly with Jacob. The ultrasounds revealed that Jacob’s amniotic fluid was too low. Both boys were monitored frequently throughout the pregnancy. The twins were born 16 weeks premature, and it was obvious from the start that Jacob wasn’t going to survive.
“The staff at Toledo Children’s prepared us well after the boys were born, especially Dr. Bradley,” recalls Ken. “We asked for Jacob to be baptized right away, and we got to hold him. These steps started the healing process and helped us focus on Gary and his future.”
Connecting with the NICU Staff
The Kemerers learned a lot over the next few months.
Ken, a manager and engineer, was used to being in charge and finding the solution to any issue that came his way. But in this difficult family situation, he had to rely on others.
“I had to learn how to ask for help,” Ken says. “I realized I couldn’t do everything by myself.”
That didn’t stop Ken from doing his own research and understanding Gary’s progress every step of the way. He needed to digest as much information as possible and ask advanced medical questions about Gary’s rounds and steroids.
“Once, I didn’t show up to the rounds and doctors Stein and Chappell were worried,” Ken says. “I never missed their rounds.”
Meanwhile, Gary’s mother, Mary, a first grade teacher, recalls bonding with the NICU staff during Gary’s stay.
“The nurses would leave little presents for us, such as books and cards with pictures of Gary that they took at night,” Mary says. “I felt comfortable leaving him overnight because I knew they were keeping an eye on him. They would always go out of their way to inform us of everything that was happening with Gary.”
This was important to both Mary and Ken, who strived to be active in Gary’s everyday care. Mary says the NICU staff made sure to include her in activities, such as giving him a bath and helping with diaper changes.
“When it was time to take Gary home from the hospital, I felt very reassured because I had been heavily involved with all these aspects involving him,” Mary says.
Friendships Formed in the NICU
Back in 2008, the NICU at Toledo Children’s Hospital had a different layout. Mary recalls two large rooms where isolettes were placed throughout the room, and the staff was present at all times. This allowed for plenty of interaction between the families, and several friendships and connections were made.
“We ended up meeting another family who had a boy that was two years older than Gary,” Mary says. “Their son had a very similar experience — same birth weight and a paralyzed vocal cord.” Having so much in common with one another, the Kemerers quickly found a comforting friend in the Quigg family.
After several weeks in the NICU, the nurses introduced the Kemerers to a mom and her son, Ethan, who had stopped by to visit. Ethan had also been born at 24 weeks and now was a normal acting two year old. “This was a turning point for me,” Ken recalls. “With all the ups and downs we were going through, it was a relief seeing a child who had to fight like our son and was so healthy now at age two. I knew Gary was going to be okay.”
Another patient, Lucy, born around the same time, was being cared for in the isolette next to Gary. The two NICU babies have attended each other’s birthday parties over the years.
“There was another mom who had a child in the area next to us,” Mary remembers. “She was very young and was staying at the Ronald McDonald House. One day, when we were both by our child’s isolettes, I offered to take pictures of her child. I then took them home and printed them out for her. This was at a time when phones didn’t have cameras and she did not have any pictures of her child. She was very grateful.”
The Kemerers also briefly met the McCarty family during their NICU stay. Little did they know that eight years later, both their sons would be playing on the same community baseball team.
In addition to the bonds formed with other families, the Kemerers also befriended several of Gary’s doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and other ProMedica staff. They still remain in contact today.
“Many of the staff are now our social friends,” Mary said. “And I’m also connected to them on Facebook so they can keep up with Gary and see pictures of how far he has come.”
Reunions and Hospital Visits
Today, the Kemerer family frequently returns to Toledo Children’s Hospital under better circumstances.
“We go back and visit the NICU a couple times a year,” says Mary. “Gary still has regular appointments with Pediatric Pulmonology. On days of his appointments we stop by and visit the NICU. It is often a good time to reconnect with some of the other nurses and specialists who are still there.”
The Kemerers also occasionally attend the annual NICU Reunion celebration held in September. They’ve been to several reunions since Gary has been out of the hospital.
Mary sometimes meets with other families who are new to the NICU.
“The social worker called me when another mom lost a twin,” Mary says. “I went to Toledo to meet with the family, talk through some of the experiences we had, and helped them see the light at the end of the tunnel.” Mary has since mentored several families. “I come whenever they need me,” she says.
This past summer, the Adrian Lookouts, an 8U Travel Baseball team, had a very successful season winning one tournament and placing second in two others. Ken helps coach the team, alongside Chad McCarty, one of their fellow NICU dads.
“Myself and two other dads put together a travel team,” Ken says. “The goal isn’t to be an ‘all-star’ team, but to get a group of kids who can play together and play baseball right.”
Meanwhile Gary gets stronger and stronger every day.
“Though he was a sickly child, I always knew Gary would be able to do everything he wanted to do,” Ken says. “I knew this in the NICU.”
The ProMedica Toledo Children’s Hospital NICU Reunion Day is Sunday, Sept. 20 from 1-3 p.m. at Entrance #3 and the parking lot. Former patients and families of patients are invited to an afternoon of fun and fellowship, including crafts, refreshments and entertainment. Please call 419-291-8380 for more information.