If you saw Ben Stomp playing with his sister at their house in Humboldt, or listened to him explain how a steam engine runs, you’d have little idea that when he arrived in the world, no one was sure if he’d ever be able to leave the hospital.

Craig and Heather Stomp were typical expectant parents in the fall of 2010. With their first baby on the way, they were excited about the changes he would bring to their lives and were starting to prepare for those changes.

Then, the baby came early.

Little Ben was born via an emergency Caesarian Section at Royal University Hospital (RUH) in Saskatoon on December 4, 2010 at 28 weeks gestation. Twelve weeks early, he weighed just two pounds, three ounces.

Ben weighed just over two pounds when he was born at 28 weeks gestation.

Ben weighed just over two pounds when he was born at 28 weeks gestation.

While tiny, Ben was a fighter right from the beginning.

Although most babies of Ben’s weight and gestation need assistance to breathe with the help of a ventilator, Ben surprised doctors and nurses by being able to breathe on his own right from the start, though he did need a little oxygen from time to time.

“He truly was our miracle baby,” said mom Heather.

The Stomps were a little overwhelmed by RUH’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit’s (NICU’s) atmosphere at first. It’s not where they expected to be with their first baby; just as they hadn’t expected their little one to arrive so early.

“I think we were in shock the first time we went in,” Heather recalled. “It just wasn’t what we planned. Being our first pregnancy, we kind of had this romantic notion about how this was supposed to be. We would go into labour at term, go into the hospital, have our baby and take our little bundle home.”

Instead, they found themselves in the hospital far ahead of schedule, with a tiny baby among other tiny babies with health issues, machines and monitors beeping all around them. It was a lot to process in a short period of time.

“I remember seeing Ben briefly after he was born, and then he was whisked away by the NICU team,” said Heather.

Mom and baby cuddle.

Heather and tiny Ben in the NICU in December 2010.

She visited Ben in the NICU the next day. “I remember walking in and sitting down next to his isolette. He was so tiny, like a baby bird, hooked up to all kinds of wires and machines, with IVs and feeding tubes running everywhere. I cried. I was so scared for him. All I wanted to do was hold him and I wasn’t able to,” Heather said. “I remember one of the nurses putting her hand on my shoulder. She said, “Ben Maxwell, that’s a really great name… a strong name. He’s a fighter. Everything is going to be okay.”

The Stomps have nothing but praise for the care Ben received in the NICU.

“Ben’s care team was amazing,” Heather said. “At first it was extremely difficult to accept that things were going to be out of our control for quite some time. My maternal instincts kept telling me, ‘I’m his mom, and I know what’s best for him.’ I was frustrated at times when I was told he hadn’t had a good day, and I wouldn’t be able to hold him. It just seemed so unfair, and unnatural, telling a new mom she can’t hold her baby. After watching these doctors and nurses in action day after day, it didn’t take long for me to realize I needed to hand things over to the professionals. They were truly gifted and knew how to best care for our baby. We put our absolute trust in them.”

The NICU care team was truly skilled and gifted, the Stomps feel.

Parents and baby pose for photo.

Craig and Heather and little Ben in the NICU.

“I believed one of their greatest strengths was knowing they weren’t only dealing with sick babies but also with distraught and scared parents,” said Heather. “They juggled both with such empathy and professionalism. We never ever felt that we were in the way. We were encouraged to call the NICU when we couldn’t be there sitting with Ben, and his nurse would personally get on the phone and talk to us about how his day was or any progress or setbacks he had. We were always invited to come in for morning rounds, so we could speak to his doctor. We really felt like we were always informed and included in plans for Ben’s care.”

Because he had so much growing to do before he was ready to come home, Ben was in the NICU for a little over two months, keeping his parents on a roller coaster the entire time. He’d be fine in the morning, then later in the day, would need a new IV line because of a suspected infection. That quick turn, the Stomps learned, is typical with tiny infants.

“All of these things that terrified us as parents were kind of the norm in the NICU,” Heather said. “I remember Ben’s monitors going off once when he stopped breathing, and his nurse reached in and tickled him and told him to ‘smarten up!’ And he did. They really handle all of these situations that are so scary to parents in a way that keeps parents feeling at ease. We always had a sense that everything was going to be okay.”

Though the Stomps live in Humboldt, Heather’s parents were in Saskatoon. She moved in with them so she could be with Ben. Craig was back and forth between Humboldt and Saskatoon, as he was still working, and being away from his family was hard on him. Heather also had a tough time focusing on healing herself after her C-section.

“I remember a social worker or family counsellor, another great support for us, firmly telling me that I needed to take care of myself or I would get sick. I thought she was silly, because where else was I going to be, except here in the NICU with my baby?”

The NICU nurses kept an eye on Heather as well as Ben. “I remember being told a few times that I looked like I needed to go home and rest,” Heather said. “They provided me with great resources, and I believe they watched for signs of post-partum depression. The counsellor was always available in case I needed to talk.”

Aside from the attention, care and love the healthcare team gave Ben, what the Stomps appreciated most were “the little things the nurses would do from day-to-day for Ben and for us. The little personal touches that we still treasure today.”

For instance, as they were in the NICU over Christmas, the nurses gave Heather and Craig a first Christmas card from Ben with a picture of him snuggled under a snowman blanket. They took plaster molds of his little feet, so when he was big and running, his parents would remember how tiny those feet once were. Heather still has his first little toque that he was given to keep him warm, his chest monitor cords and a preemie-sized diaper.

“It’s so, so tiny – I look at it now and can’t believe he ever fit into it,” Heather said.

A real sense of family developed in the NICU between the Stomps and other families.

“After spending so much time with other moms sitting with their babies, I developed friendships and support systems with people who I still keep in touch with today,” Heather said.

Ben was discharged from the NICU on February 10, 2011, but the Stomps continued to receive support. Ben’s progress was monitored by several specialists, from physical and occupational therapists to neonatologists, eye specialists and pediatricians.

“Everything was put in place for us when we left, so we knew exactly where we needed to go and what we needed to do so that Ben was receiving the best care possible,” Heather said.

The family also spent time working with a team at the Kinsmen Centre to ensure Ben was hitting all of his developmental milestones.

Ben on his fifth birthday.

Ben on his fifth birthday.

Now five years old, Ben has completely caught up in all developmental areas and is the same as any other little boy his age. He is silly and fun and full of energy. He is smart, cares deeply for his friends. He’s protective of his baby sister and will do anything for her. He has an incredible memory and can recall events that happened years ago with great detail.

Brother and sister hug.

Ben dotes on his baby sister, Camryn.

“We’re careful what we promise him, because we know he won’t forget,” said Heather.

Ben is passionate about trains and confident that when he grows up, he will work for CN. He tackles preschool with great confidence, and is a real social butterfly. And he loves to do arts and crafts.

While he still sees his pediatrician, Ben had his last appointment with his neonatologist at the age of four. And at his last appointment, he showed just how far he’s come from the NICU. When asked to name colours, he told the doctor that “this shade of purple is actually called indigo,” and when asked to name shapes, he said, “this shape isn’t a square, it’s actually called a rhombus.”

“Ben does struggle with asthma as a result of having such tiny underdeveloped lungs, but we manage this with regular visits to his pediatrician. Given his really early entrance into the world, we have definitely been blessed to have had no major setbacks or complications on our journey. We are truly grateful to the NICU. Without the high level of care we received, we’re just not sure our story would have had such a happy ending,” Heather said.

The NICU will be part of the new Children’s Hospital of Saskatchewan.  For more information on the Children’s Hospital of Saskatchewan project, visit here, or check them out on Facebook or Twitter.