June 2, 2011

Family thankful 1,000 times over for NICU experience

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Judy Aschner, M.D., right, holds a handmade chain of 1,000 origami cranes that Kumi Hagiwara, left, recently presented to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. (Photo by Joe Howell)

Family thankful 1,000 times over for NICU experience

Joe Hawigara Chen, 3, spent time in the NICU after he was born, and his familiy recently returned to say thank you in a special way. (Photo by Joe Howell)

Joe Hawigara Chen, 3, spent time in the NICU after he was born, and his familiy recently returned to say thank you in a special way. (Photo by Joe Howell)

The 3-year-old had come dressed for an important occasion, wearing a neatly pressed orange and blue plaid shirt, khaki pants and sporting his T-Rex dinosaur socks. He carried around a small square piece of paper with the word “camel” printed neatly on it. Soft spoken, he uttered an almost inaudible, “C-A-M-E-L,” to show he knew his letters.

In typical toddler fashion, he was enjoying life, though not totally aware of why he and his parents were there.

His family had come to say “thank you” 1,000 times to the nurses and doctors who had kept a watchful eye on Joe in the early months of his life, spent in the NICU at Children's Hospital. Joe was born with intestinal issues and had a colostomy to have his intestines reconnected. That was three years ago.

But it had taken that long to finish the elaborate gift that the family bestowed upon the staff that cares for the hospital's tiniest patients.

On that day, his mother, Kumi Hagiwara, and father, Mark Chen, presented a rainbow-colored chain of 1,000 paper origami cranes made by Kumi's mother and Joe's grandmother, Shigeko Hagiwara.

The family also gave two Japanese dolls; a samurai for boys, and a Hina, meaning doll, for girls. The dolls are customarily given to a newborn child as a symbol of strength and longevity.

“We brought these for the patients and families. They signify hope and good luck in Japan,” Kumi said.

Three and a half years ago, Joe's grandmother, or Bachan as he calls her in Japanese, had flown to Nashville from Japan to be present for her grandson's impending birth on Dec. 29, 2007.

Shigeko had wanted to come early to the United States to experience Christmas-time in America. She took in the sites of Nashville, including a trip to the Parthenon at Centennial Park.

When Joe was born, Kumi thought she had a healthy baby boy — by all appearances, he was. But when he didn't pass a stool, doctors knew something was wrong, and he was transferred from another local hospital to the NICU at Children's Hospital.

While in the NICU, Joe's grandmother kept watch over him. She felt useless and didn't know English, Kumi says. Nurses took care to try to make gestures to show her what was happening.

Joe is now a healthy, happy and very active 3-year-old who loves dinosaurs and trips to the aquarium.

In a letter to NICU staff, Kumi relayed what her mother told her:

“She told me that the experience of being at the NICU at Vanderbilt was very special in her life. Also, she felt for the other families who worried about their children as if they were her family.”

Kumi didn't know that when her mother returned to Japan, she began the ambitious task of folding 1,000 paper cranes.

During a visit last summer, Shigeko brought the finished product.

“She told me to give them to Children's Hospital as her appreciation and best wishes for all the children there,” Kumi said.

But there was still the job of sewing them together, which Kumi completed in April with help from her sister.

Many staff and doctors were on hand to accept the gift.

“I didn't quite know what (the paper cranes) were going to look like,” said Linda Crisafulli, R.N., assistant manager of the NICU, who looked on in awe at the remarkable craftsmanship.

“To see how big and beautiful the cranes are is amazing. This means so much to staff — that a family would do this for us. The staff will be very appreciative.”

The paper cranes will be hung in a glass casing in the NICU along with the Japanese dolls.

“We will put it in a good location for all families to see,” said Crisafulli.