PALO ALTO -- Last year, Joshua Wilson screamed into this world two months early, after an emergency helicopter airlift delivered his mom to the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. His first of three surgeries began just hours after his birth at 3 pounds, 7 ounces -- the launch of a 137-day stay in the neonatal intensive care unit.
But on Sunday, chubby cheeked Joshua -- now 18 months and pushing his own stroller on sturdy legs -- was not the baby who almost didn't make it. He was "Doodles," and "Faker," the affectionate nicknames fondly remembered by his parents and primary nurse Rene Tillotson.
On the lush lawn outside the Stanford School of Medicine, the trio joined dozens of other families who lived through the trauma, terror and tenuousness of life in the second-floor NICU to thank the legions of hardworking, lifesaving staffers. The annual preemies' reunion at Stanford is in its 31st year.
Joshua's moms, Kelly Wilson and Justine Rigali, drove three-and-a-half hours from Atascadero to attend the upbeat event and embrace Tillotson, their son's primary nurse.
"It was a horrible, horrible nightmare experience," Wilson said. "I was a wreck most of the time, but she kept me sane. She cared for all of us -- Justine and I, and the whole family."
The reunion that attracts as many as 500 people each year is just as important for the surgeons, registered nurses, social workers and numerous other specialists who work in the NICU, said organizing nurse Barbara Boyington. Staff who meet the families in crisis often don't know what became of the tiny preemies after they have treated their cardiac crises or post-surgery infections.
"We send these babies home when they're small, and they have some issues," Boyington said. "So it's so great to see those issues weren't a problem."
In its 31st year, the NICU reunion -- celebrated with jugglers, face-painting, clowns and magic shows -- has numerous regulars.
Cheyenne Street has been coming back for most of her 25 years. Now a writer and construction worker living in Felton, Street said her birth story have always been a part of her family's fabric. That's in part because Street's twin brother did not survive. But at the reunion each year, she said, she can celebrate the "one of us who made it."
The Woo family, of Palo Alto, comes each year to acknowledge their terrifying few days -- and to triumph over them. Krissy Woo's second-born Hannah, now 4 years old, spent three days in the NICU after two episodes in which her breathing stopped.
"We started out so precariously," she said in the Sunday sunshine as Hannah and her brother Noah, 7, jumped up and down and showed off their face paint. "That was the most vulnerable time of our lives."
Woo's husband, Chris, a cardiology fellow at Stanford University Medical Center, remembered the helplessness he felt when Hannah was rushed into the NICU, and how easy it is, even for physicians, to forget how temporal life can be.
Sunday's reunion is a chance for the family to share their immense relief and gratitude to the Lucile Packard staff.
"It's a great reminder of how difficult it was in the beginning," Krissy Woo said, "and how wonderful it is now."
Contact Karen de Sá at 408-920-5781.