Parents

Joy to the world: Santa visits preemies in NICU for early Christmas gift

April Neal should have been happy when she gave birth to her first baby, Wyatt, in early November. But instead, she was filled with worry — Wyatt arrived 13 weeks early.

“It is so overwhelming,” Neal told TODAY. “It is incredibly challenging to see your baby like that.”

Courtesy of Allen S. Kramer / Texas Children's Hospital
After giving birth to son Wyatt 13 weeks early, April Neal experienced a lot of worry and stress. A special visit from Santa helped her forget Wyatt was stuck in a hospital just for a moment.

Neal had preeclampsia and dangerously high blood pressure, and delivered Wyatt via emergency cesarean section. Since then, Wyatt has faced numerous problems, including low birth weight, breathing difficulties, and a heart murmur. Doctors don’t know what his long-term prognosis might be, and don’t even know when he can go home.

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“It’s so scary," Neal said. "I don’t know where the strength comes from."

On top of the medical-related stress, Neal feels sad that she and husband Nathan can't create holiday memories with their new son. She wishes that she could take Wyatt to see Santa Claus, or to open gifts with family.

“I always always enjoy the holidays,” she said. “This year I have been so dedicated to Wyatt, there is no Christmas tree, no Christmas lights.”

Courtesy Allen S. Kramer / Texas Children's Hospital
Wyatt was 13 weeks early but he has steadily been gaining weight and improving his strength. When Santa visited it was the first time Wyatt was healthy enough to wear clothes.

But then, Neal and Wyatt received a wonderful surprise: Santa Claus visited the babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at Texas Children’s Hospital Pavilion for Women in Houston.

When she first heard Santa was coming, Neal felt a flicker of that missing holiday spirit, and rushed out to purchase a holiday outfit for Wyatt. As she dressed him, she realized something about her month-old son.

“He has only been in diapers,” she said. “That was the first time I saw him in clothes. I know that is so weird.”

This is the third year Santa visited the preemies at Texas Children’s Hospital. Kellie Kainer, assistant clinical director of the NICU, says that holiday celebrations remain important for the families with babies in the NICU.

“You don’t get the first Santa pictures that everyone wants," she said. “We always try to make the holidays special. It is very challenging to have a baby in the NICU."

Courtesy Allen S. Kramer / Texas Children's Hospital
For families with babies in the NICU life is stressful. A visit from Santa gave many of them a much needed break from stress and medical emergencies.

Unlike Wyatt, many are not well enough to wear clothes, but all the babies wore crocheted Santa hats. Santa visited each family and posed for a professional photo taken by a volunteer.

“It’s so wonderful to see these programs be able to come in and normalize the experience as much as we can,” Kainer said.

Neal says that Santa’s visit gave her and Nathan a moment simply to be parents enjoying the holidays with their son.

Courtesy Allen S. Kramer / Texas Children's Hospital
Parents of babies in the NICU at Texas Children's Hospital felt happy they had a chance to get their preemies pictures with Santa.

“It takes you out of the NICU day-to-day and gives you a moment to bond,” she said. “It is Wyatt’s first Christmas and we can’t take him home, but we had that moment.”

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