Don’t be surprised if Morristown High School football coach Chris Hull moves his scouting operation to the Morristown Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit.
Six stars from his 2010 state championship team got a head start there. They returned on Monday to say thank you, and to give parents of other premature and ailing infants hope for the future.
“Thanks for everything,” said Elijah Gadsden. Born seven weeks premature at just 5 pounds, 2 ounces, he became a fleet-footed running back and punt returner for the state champs. “They made me a healthy baby. It’s good to be here today.”
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Doctors gave trophies to Elijah and teammates Doug Goss, Kyle and Kurt Sittmann, David Levine and Chris McDonald. The players gave doctors an autographed football–which the medical guys tried not to fumble.
Dr. Gaines Mimms estimated that 10,000 babies have passed through the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) since he treated these players there in 1992 and 1993. Success stories like these make everyone want to come to work each day, he said.
“This should give hope for families,” said the neonatologist. “When they see small, premature babies, they see frailty and sadness. To see these young men so vital and strong is inspiring for families and for the staff. This is what you hope for all children. It’s an exciting story.”
The gathering was held in a hospital room intended for triplets and their families, and with good reason: Doug Goss and David Levine each were born among triplets; the Sittmanns are twins.
Kurt Sittmann, who is returning to the Colonials as a guard, conceded it felt weird coming back to the hospital where it all started. Kyle, a returning guard, likened it to a high school reunion “where they remember you, but you don’t know their names.”
He was grateful, just the same.
“Thank you for getting us out of here alive!” said Kyle, who was born six weeks premature with lungs that were not fully developed.
Their dad, Gerry Sittmann, remembered a jumble of emotions 18 years ago, from the joy of having newborns to tears of worry for their health. The NICU in those days, in what then was known as Morristown Memorial Hospital, was a crowded room. In 2009, a 22,000-square-foot expansion opened with 34 private and semi-private suites; some even can accommodate quadruplets.
“I was amazed,” Gerry said. As for how the twins are doing, he joked, “It’s a work in progress.”
Monday’s event was hatched by Chris’ mom, Sharon McDonald, a former nurse at the hospital. Chris arguably has the most dramatic story of the bunch.
Three days after his birth he underwent emergency surgery; doctors removed a tumor from his liver and took his gall bladder and appendix as well. Chris has been back to the hospital over the years, performing community service and getting repairs for nine broken bones, by his mother’s count.
“We call him a miracle baby,” said Chris’ dad, Gene McDonald, who still recalls the “beep, beep, beep” of medical devices in the NICU.
“I’ve been thinking about doing this for years,” said Sharon McDonald, who cared for the Sittmanns, Gosses and Levines as a hospital nurse. These days she is the nurse at the Woodland School in Morris Township. “How great is it for parents [of premature babies] to see these kids, who are so huge? They won the state championship. And they’re such great guys.”
“I love Morristown Memorial Hospital,” said Regina Davis-Gadsden, who gave birth to three boys there. After Elijah’s touch-and-go infancy, football was a breeze, she said.
“I never worried about him getting slammed around on the football field because he’s strong,” she said of Elijah, who will attend the County College of Morris this fall. “The NICU was different. I didn’t know what to expect. It was a scary moment.”
Days like Monday are why he entered neonatal medicine, said Dr. Andrew Schenkman. It’s a field where results can be dramatic and lasting, he said.
“One of our goals is to constantly remind parents: What you’re seeing today with your sick infant will be history soon. Children are very resilient. They recover from all kinds of things that older folks may not be able to recover from.”
“You pray for outcomes like this,” added Dr. Larry Skolnick, who said the tools of the trade had come a long way since he entered the field in the late 1970s. Back then, he said, very few medical instruments were designed for babies. New drugs also have improved the odds for premature babies. He cited a drug administered to Doug Goss as a newborn that helped his underdeveloped lungs mature.
The doctor said babies born three months premature, with proper medical care, now have a 99 percent survival rate. For babies born four months early, the rate is 50 to 60 percent, and about half of them grow up without major health issues, he said.
As strange as Monday’s event felt for some of the football players, it might have been even more so for the doctors.
“No one wants to know us,” said Dr. Skolnick. “Typically, it’s bad news when they call us! To this day, I get annoyed when people take full-term births for granted.”
David Levine is recovering from hip surgery and plans to play lacrosse at the University of Michigan in the fall. The Colonials linebacker was thankful, like his teammates, for the treatment he received as a baby.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Without them, I might not be here.”
Monday’s event coincided with the official start of summer practice sessions for the Colonials, who are determined to repeat as state champs. Coach Hull said he was impressed by the NICU and the gridiron talent it had churned out.
“We should recruit some of these kids and come back in 13 years,” he said.