Our 22-year-old is ‘a tribute to the gifted hands of the Doernbecher NICU physicians and nurses’

On Saturday, April 20, the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Friends of Doernbecher will host the 15th annual Heart of Doernbecher Auction. Each year, we invite a family to share their Doernbecher story. The Rea family shared their personal story at the very first Heart of Doernbecher Auction 15 years ago. Today, Ryan Rea is a thriving junior at Washington State University. His family remains incredibly thankful for the care they received 22 years ago. Following is their story in their own words.

Ryan, Laura and Dennis Rea

My connection with Doernbecher Children’s Hospital began in June 1974 with my first job as a registered nurse in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). From a nurse’s perspective, neonatal nursing was an exciting, fast-paced, challenging and oftentimes heartbreaking job. I could never have imagined then that 17 years later I would find myself on the opposite side of the infant warmer watching our precious baby struggle to survive.

From a parent’s perspective, nothing can adequately prepare you for the roller coaster ride an admission ticket to the NICU brings. A day in the life of a preemie can be the longest, most grueling, emotionally draining 24 hours a parent can experience … then it repeats itself day after day

Our dream of having a large family was almost derailed when following the delivery of our second baby, I suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that caused paralysis to my left side. After 26 days, the first sign of hope came with a slight movement of my big toe. Recovery took months of physical therapy and patience.

Ryan Rea, no bigger than a shoebox.

Obviously, thoughts of expanding our family further seemed unlikely, but six years later the desire for another baby began tugging at our hearts.

Wanting to take every precaution, we came to the OHSU High-Risk Pregnancy Clinic for advice, prenatal care and eventual delivery. Doctors determined my stroke had been caused by a drug I’d been given during delivery, which triggered a hypertensive episode that ruptured my right temporal artery. We were relieved to finally know what had caused my stroke, so we felt comfortable moving forward.

My third pregnancy was uneventful until the 26th week, when I came down with what I thought was the flu. Three days later I awoke with a violent headache and partial loss of vision. Fearing another stroke, we called my neurologist and rushed to the ER in Walla Walla.

A diagnosis of preeclampsia was made and treatment started. Further tests revealed I was in labor and our baby was in fetal distress. I was so focused on the headache and possibility of another stroke, I was barely aware of the contractions. Life Flight came from Portland and delivered us to OHSU, where doctors performed an emergency C-section.

Dr. Joe Gilhooly and Ryan Rea at the 2002 Heart of Doernbecher Auction

Born blue and limp with a rapidly failing heart rate, Ryan weighed 1 pound 9 ounces and was 13 inches long. Like all premature infants born less than 28 weeks gestation, Ryan faced many health risks, from serious breathing difficulties to cerebral palsy, intracranial bleeding and possible blindness. During his first 48 hours, Ryan struggled valiantly just to breathe.

He was fortunate to be in the Doernbecher NICU because, at the time, it was one of only five children’s hospitals nationwide participating in the trial study of surfactant therapy – a drug that helps tiny, immature lungs absorb oxygen.

There’s absolutely no doubt in our minds that together Doernbecher and surfactant therapy saved Ryan’s life. After 88 days in the NICU, weighing just 3 pounds 10 ounces, and measuring 15 inches long, we brought Ryan home.

Ryan Rea, high school graduation

Today, our miracle is a healthy and active 22-year-old, a tribute to the gifted hands of the Doernbecher NICU physicians and nurses and their commitment to providing cutting-edge medical care for premature and critically ill infants.

We feel blessed that Ryan, a junior at WSU, is majoring in AgEcon/Agribusiness, with plans to return to our family farm. We strongly believe it’s important to support causes that are dear to your heart, so that’s why we continue to support Doernbecher, so that it can continue to be successful in the future.

Laura Rea
Walla Walla, Washington

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About the Author

Tamara Hargens-Bradley is a senior communications specialist for Oregon Health & Science University and OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital. She is the editor of the Healthy Families blog.
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