OAKLAND

Nearly four years ago, Lisa Thompson was nearing her mid-30s and in a long-term relationship with a man who didn't want children.

She did — badly.

Thompson, a strawberry blonde with boundless energy and a freckled face, went to a sperm bank and underwent artificial insemination.

Just 12 weeks later, she was given the news that she was having twins. All looked fine — then.

But when she was nearly five months pregnant, the Bay Area woman found out that one of the babies had an omphalocele, a type of "abdominal wall defect in which the intestines, liver, and sometimes other organs remain outside of the abdomen in a sac because of a defect in the development of the muscles of the abdominal wall,'' according to Internet medical references.

A single, working mother with a regional sales management job, she carried the babies nearly to full term.

"The day he was born they said there was nothing they could do,'' said Thompson, balancing her son Jacob, now 31/2, on her hip while his twin, Hailee, ran underfoot.

Thompson came to Children's Hospital & Research Center Oakland and as it turned out, there was something they could do.

In fact, there were a lot of things they could do to save his life.

Since his birth in January 2005, the little boy — who has giant blue eyes surrounded by eyelashes long enough to make a grown woman jealous — has undergone 19 surgeries.

On Sunday, he was back at Children's Hospital, but not for medical treatment or surgery.


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He was there to see the doctors and nurses who saved his life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Nursery.

"We only came here for Jacob,'' said Thompson, now 37 and living in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho with her immediate family. "We drove 14 hours for Jacob to see the nurses and doctors who made such a difference in his life.''

Thompson was not alone Sunday.

Hundreds of children and their parents gathered on the sprawling hospital patio and lawn for the 30th annual picnic and "reunion" of critically ill babies who are now living healthy lives. More than 400 newborns are treated in the Intensive Care Nursery unit annually, with a majority of them — some years as high as 98 percent — going home, hospital officials said.

People traveled from Kentucky, Oregon, Idaho and Tennessee to attend the gathering.

Joe West Jr. is 30 years old now, married to Tyrah West, and the two have a 21-month-old son named Trey.

But in 1977 West spent three months at Children's Hospital.

"I was expected on Valentine's Day of 1978 and I (was born) on Halloween of 1977,'' he said, sitting at a picnic table eating barbecue with his family.

West was born at 26 weeks because his mother had cervical problems and could not carry him to full term, he said. He weighed less than 2 pounds, was weak and had breathing problems.

"If you could see pictures of him when he was born, he looked like a little bird,'' his wife said.

He stayed in the intensive care nursery for three months and over those weeks his parents developed such a close relationship with a nurse named Penny Arndt that West's parents bought a house next to hers in Castro Valley, he said.

At the time, doctors thought the tiny baby boy could go blind from all the oxygen he was given, but today West said he has perfect vision.

His story is a happy one and he wants to share it with other parents who could be struggling with the recent sickness of their own child.

"I've been told (my presence) helps young parents because they can see that someone can have a normal life,'' said West, who travelled from Medford, Ore. for the gathering.

It's not only doctors and nurses who help sick children in the unit. There are people on staff, such as Bette Flushman, who assist parents as they deal with the emotional trauma of the often grave situation.

Flushman is an infant development specialist who has worked in her job for 31 years.

She teaches parents infant massage and a technique called "kangaroo holding,'' where the parent rests the bare baby on his or her bare-skinned chest.

In a hospital setting, with Latex gloves and tubes and needles and lots of metal, it can be difficult to develop the parent-child bond, Flushman said.

"The thing we do is get these parents and babies connected with each other because everything in the nursery is a barrier to that happening naturally,'' she said.

She also teaches parents how to massage their babies' little feet and arms.

"It's calming for the baby and it's calming for the parents,'' Flushman said.

It was certainly a technique that helped Tracy Signor, 38, of Vallejo. Her daughter Kaitlyn was born at 241/2 weeks and weighed just 1 pound, 2 ounces. The baby girl spent five months in the intensive care nursery unit in 2005 and during that time the baby massage helped Signor bond with her daughter.

"It was a way to touch her that I hoped would make up for all of the invasive touch that she received,'' Signor said.

Kaitlyn is now a tow-headed 3-year-old who loves Goldfish crackers and Teddy bears. She has some hearing loss — possibly from medications — but with the use of hearing aids her hearing is nearly normal, her mom said.

"I feel extremely blessed to have found this place and I feel so grateful to all of these doctors and nurses who helped our daughter,'' she said.

Signor, who was with her husband Scott at the picnic, said she comes to the reunions to say thank you, but there is another reason as well.

"It's partially to show her off. To show them that there's an amazing product from all their hard work.''

Kristin Bender covers Berkeley. Reach her at kbender@bayareanewsgroup. Read her blog at www.ibabuzz.com/outtakes.