Nothing about the way Natalie Cervantes twirls her gauzy pink skirt and downs Christmas candy suggests that only six and a half years ago she was a premature newborn with apnea and a feeding tube.
Natalie spent the first two weeks of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center after arriving six weeks early. Now she and her parents return to the hospital every Christmas season to distribute gifts to NICU families going through similar challenges.
Natalie gets it.
“I help the people in the hospital,” she said Wednesday after dropping off 25 red stockings filled with practical and thoughtful gifts, including tissues, snacks, notepads, hand sanitizer and board books to read to the babies in the hushed, dim nursery.
She helps the “early babies.”
Her mother, Kristen, was in labor for a day and a half before Natalie’s birth on May 21, 2012. Doctors tried to slow her labor through medication, but Natalie, named before she was born, came anyway. She was 4 pounds, 12 ounces and 16.5 inches long.
Nurses whisked her to the NICU. Kristen’s earliest glimpses were through cell phone photos; she didn’t get to hold her only child until a day later.
Natalie’s dad, Anthony, had a hard time seeing her in an incubator, connected to tubes and lines. She didn’t seem to like them either; though tiny and delicate, she yanked the feeding tube from her nose, her parents said.
“It was a long 13 days,” Anthony said.
Natalie’s early arrival changed her parents. They appreciate the care Natalie received to get a healthy start and want her to know the good fortune of being home rather than at the hospital at Christmas.
And there are the rewards of “helping others who have helped you as well,” Kristen said.
They purchase the care packages with their own money and with the help of the hospital-based nonprofit Joni’s Angels deliver them to the NICU. They haven’t missed a Christmas since Natalie was born.
Natalie is now a first-grader at Perry Elementary School in Huntington Beach. She has her mom’s wide eyes, her dad’s thick, dark hair and a charming gap-toothed smile made possible by lost baby teeth.
She likes unicorns, sparkly things and L.O.L. Surprise dolls. She has no lasting health effects from her premature birth and is even a couple of inches taller than the typical 6-year-old.
Most 6-year-olds also probably don’t have a Fountain Valley Regional employee badge — printed at the hospital human resources office — that identifies them as a “future NICU nurse.”
Her time in the hospital was far before her memory. It’s not far from her mom’s.
Kristen still vividly recalls the emotions.
“I know how it feels to be in that position,” she said.