Newborn lives hang in the balance at West Penn's neonatal intensive care unit

Parents spend the holiday in a hospital

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Around 10 a.m. on Christmas, Chelsea Hoffman settled into a wooden rocking chair at West Penn Hospital and peered through an incubator at baby Nora nestled inside.

Born Dec. 8, Nora arrived early: Ms. Hoffman, 23, of Castle Shannon was 29 weeks pregnant, and Nora weighed a perilous 3 pounds 7 ounces.

When she's sitting in this quiet space with her fiance or alone, as she was Wednesday morning, Ms. Hoffman thinks about Nora's progress and looks for signs that she's responsive. Sometimes she imagines what their first trip to Disney World will be like and all of the adventures they're going to share.

"We were scared, but I feel safe here, and I felt that I was in the best place I could be," she said.

Ms. Hoffman and parents of other ill or premature babies celebrated Christmas in the most bittersweet of places, West Penn's neonatal intensive care unit in Bloomfield.

Hints of the holiday were all around. One of the unit's doctors dressed up as Santa Claus and posed with Nora. Nora's grandmother knitted her a red Santa cap. Elsewhere, holiday cards and drawings adorned the blue walls.

The light was dim, and the unit was still and peaceful — even as parents and staff know the 30 infants there are fighting to stay alive.

Mary Ann Clayton, a registered nurse who has worked with women and babies for 24 years, said employees in this unit don't mind being there on the holidays.

"I love these babies like they're my own," she said.

Months ago, this isn't how many parents imagined they would be spending the holiday season.

When Katherine Bokor of Hopewell was 20 weeks pregnant, she and her husband, Craig, learned she was carrying twin girls. At first, he thought the ultrasound technician was joking when she shared the news, but the couple couldn't have been happier to learn that, instead of one, two babies were due in February.

The pregnancy, however, was complicated by the fact that both girls were sharing a single placenta, Ms. Bokor, 28, said. Eight weeks later, she went into labor, giving birth to Emery and Piper on Dec. 5.

"I pray a lot and cry a lot," Ms. Bokor said, reflecting on the last few dizzying months.

Their 3-year-old son, Avery, was shy when talking with a reporter, but his parents said every time he comes to the unit to visit his sisters, he says: "How are my girls today?"

On Christmas, the twins, too, were festive, wearing green caps donated by Owyn's Butterfly Kisses, a Wheeling, W.Va., nonprofit that also collects clothes, hats and blankets for preemies at the unit.

Back down the hall, Ms. Hoffman said Nora is making progress. She dropped to 2 pounds 8 ounces but has since returned to her birth weight, and beat an infection that caused her white blood count to climb, Ms. Hoffman said.

She has watched her daughter reach important milestones during morning visits, and again in the evenings with her fiance, Eric Heasley. In some ways, she said, Christmas seems like just another day at the unit.

Relatives planned to visit baby Nora later Wednesday, which promised to be a special treat for Ms. Hoffman's mother, who was ill earlier this month and was to meet her granddaughter for the first time. Nora is her first grandchild.

Molly Born: or 412-263-1944.

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