Written by Laura Roe Stevens | Photographed by Vincent Rios
On November 19, 2018, Theresa Mejia of Carson was wheeled into surgery
at Torrance Memorial Medical Center for an emergency cesarean section.
She was only in her 26th week of pregnancy—extremely premature—yet
a kidney complication risked her health.
The mother of three had just been diagnosed with lupus. Carrying her fourth
baby to term would be life-threatening to both mother and baby. She had
no choice but to deliver her baby girl, Zadie, 14 weeks early and pray
she would survive.
It’s an arduous journey for premature infants (babies born before
37 weeks of pregnancy), as well as for their families who are helpless
during a whirlwind of activity to save the premature newborns. Many preterm
babies undergo multiple complications related to prematurity and some
need to undergo surgery to survive.
The earlier babies are born, the more critical it is they have access to
the highest quality of care. This care ensures babies such as Zadie and
Victoria, both born at 26 weeks, not only survive but will thrive. This
miracle is due in large part to Torrance Memorial’s extraordinary,
multidisciplinary Level 3 NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) team.
Time is often of the essence in the NICU. Preterm babies are at risk for
developing multiple health issues, including severe lung problems, heart
failure, intestinal issues (sometimes requiring emergency surgery), infections
and bleeding in the brain. Swift and accurate diagnosis, especially in
emergency situations, must be followed by quick, effective treatment from
talented subspecialists including neonatologists, pediatric surgeons,
pediatric anesthesiologists, pediatric cardiologists and infectious disease
specialists. A multidisciplinary health care team is necessary for a premature
baby’s recovery and growth.
Not all NICUs are the same. For added comfort for families and to improve
patient outcomes, Torrance Memorial’s NICU has been renovated with
25 private rooms, and 24/7 access for parents. The NICU also has an in-house
neonatologist and immediate availability of pediatric subspecialists including
pediatric surgeons and pediatric anesthesiologists. In addition, the NICU
is staffed by neonatal nurses, respiratory care practitioners, neonatal
nutritionists, pediatric physical therapists and social workers.
Having the entire team available at the same location provides immediate
necessary, high-quality treatment and the gift of precious time. If a
preterm infant suddenly requires a lifesaving emergency procedure, it
can be done immediately—without transport to another facility.
This was of huge benefit for baby Zadie. The extremely premature infant
developed an intestinal perforation a day after she was born. Jerry Schwartz,
MD, a neonatologist and medical director of neonatology for Torrance Memorial,
discovered on a routine X-ray that Zadie had a spontaneous intestinal
perforation—a potentially life-threatening complication of prematurity
that can allow toxic bowel content to leak into the baby’s abdominal cavity.
There was no time to lose. Dr. Schwartz called his colleague Fombe Ndiforchu,
MD, a pediatric surgeon with 38 years of experience.
“Dr. Ndiforchu dropped everything,” Dr. Schwartz recalls. “We
had 2-day-old Zadie, critically ill and on a ventilator, weighing 1 pound,
10 ounces, in surgery within two hours after discovering it [the abdominal
perforation]. Since we also have four board-certified pediatric anesthesiologists
on staff, there was no need to transfer Zadie out of the community. We
were able to treat her immediately.”
Diagnosis and treatment were so quick, Zadie’s mother didn’t
meet her daughter until after the emergency surgery. “The first
time I got to see Zadie, she was 2 days old,” Teresa says. “It
was so scary. In the NICU, every second matters.”
Torrance Memorial’s world-class team has worked tirelessly to provide
quick, seamless care that saves lives like Zadie’s. “Our multidisciplinary,
Level 3 team is so complete and talented,” says Dr. Schwartz. “I’ve
treated approximately 10,000 newborns in the NICU—about half of
which were due to prematurity—over the past 30 years. I’m
extremely proud of our team. We can handle just about anything that comes
The most challenging NICU situations often occur with the earliest premature
infants, and the NICU team treats multiple preterm babies every day. For
instance, while Zadie was being treated at the NICU, Ruby Laguna gave
birth to her daughter Victoria, also at 26 weeks of pregnancy. Ruby and
Theresa became fast friends during their daughters’ long stays and
multiple procedures and surgeries while in the NICU.
Baby Victoria, nicknamed Queen V for her “loud demands,” underwent
five intestinal surgeries within her first five months of life. NICU staff
warned Ruby her daughter would likely go home needing IV nutrition fluids
“She certainly defied the odds,” Ruby exclaims. “Her
feisty personality showed through even after surgeries. Nothing stops
Pediatric surgeons Veronica Sullins, MD, and Daniel DeUgarte, MD, were
an instrumental part of Queen V’s successful surgeries.
Both moms laughed during interviews, with babies cooing in the background—safe
at home, healthy futures ahead. But it wasn’t like that months ago.
Their miraculous survival was due in large part to the NICU staff, physicians
of multiple subspecialties and the dedicated nursing team.
“When you’re in it, it’s just terrifying,” Ruby
shares. “Even the first day in the NICU, I trusted everyone there.
The nurses were amazing. Dr. Schwartz tells you how it is so you can understand
it. I trusted all the night nurses, especially. I could go home and get
sleep, knowing my baby was OK. It’s a blessing.”
Theresa says, “Thanks to the wonderful staff at Torrance Memorial.
You make the impossible possible, and because of all of you my family
Theresa and Ruby get together each week with their babies to see Stephanie
Abrams MD, MS, a board-certified pediatric gastroenterologist at Torrance
Memorial. Dr. Abrams guides them with infant nutritional health.
A week before Thanksgiving, Ruby celebrated her 1st birthday with 9-month-old
Victoria. Both are thriving, meeting milestones, digesting nutrition,
filled with curiosity. They may not be ready for a cupcake yet—but
it’s something to look forward to.
Both moms believe in miracles, as do many other parents whose children
got their start at Torrance Memorial’s NICU. In fact, a former NICU
family wrote a poem entitled “God Lives in the NICU.” From
shared experiences of taking care of babies like Zadie and Queen V, the
NICU staff feels the same way.
That’s likely because of the tiny angels who arrive there. After
all, babies like Zadie and Victoria are the reason Torrance Memorial’s
experienced Level 3 NICU team works tirelessly to give them a fighting chance.
Writer Laura Roe Stevens was the parenting and pregnancy editor for RealGirlsMedia
and Meredith Publishing. She is also a regular contributor to
Fit Pregnancy magazine and wrote
How to Survive Your Pregnancy and
How to Survive Your Baby’s First Year, books published Hundreds of Heads Books.