Mother visits University Hospital NICU where son’s life was saved 5 years ago

Science-backed Family Nurture Care Program at UH is one of only two in the nation

SAN ANTONIO – Julie Hernandez wound up at University Hospital at 27 weeks pregnant five years ago.

After two weeks of hospital bed rest, she gave birth to her son Jacob at 29 weeks.

“That’s all we prayed for was that beautiful cry,” she said, explaining how terrifying it was to have a baby in the NICU.

Jacob in NICU (Credit: Julia Hernandez)

“I really just had to put my trust into the hospital, and I can’t say enough. God put us here for a reason. I had a team of people at my bedside before my baby was even born, just waiting for us. There must have been, like, eight people just focused on Jacob,” Julia said.

Jacob is now a healthy, happy 5-year-old whose special bond with his mom is apparent. He held onto Julia as she cried, retelling their story. He giggled when she talked about their love of Transformers.

Julia said that’s all thanks to University Hospital’s Family Nurture Care Program, which had just been initiated when Jacob was admitted to the NICU.

The Family Nurture Care program works with moms and dads who have babies in the NICU to help them bond with their infants. Research shows that these sensory activities increase brain activity and early brain development in preterm infants and decrease depression and anxiety in both moms and babies.

The activities include:

  • Exchanging clothes with each other’s scents throughout their NICU stay;
  • Practicing eye contact at every opportunity;
  • Touching from the earliest days in the NICU;
  • Holding your baby as soon as it is medically possible;
  • Singing, talking and reading to your baby;
  • Emotional expression – A Nurture Specialist can get you started with this most important element of the calming cycle, or you can start by telling your baby your birth story and what it meant to you.

“There’s cuddle time. There was special touch. There’s a nerve that is stimulated in utero, and they taught me how to stimulate that nerve. The scent rags, you know, leaving my scent behind for him,” Julia said, describing parts of the program.

Those crucial guided sensory activities let parents calm their babies and teach them emotions to help them develop stronger autonomic nervous systems.

“Which up-regulates the heart rate, the breathing, the blood pressure -- all these things that are so dysregulated in premature babies,” said Dr. Alice Gong, PREMIEre Program medical director at University Health and professor at UT Health San Antonio.

Gong has worked in the University Hospital NICU since 1985. She said she is proud to see decades’ worth of work culminate in the Family Nurture Care Program.

The program trial started at the University Hospital NICU in 2017, with just a few families being able to sign up. Now, every single family who steps into the NICU can participate.

“The most important thing is that cuddling, where Mom shares her emotions with the baby. These little, tiny premature babies will open their eyes and look at the moms and know when their moms are there. So what we’re doing is helping develop that autonomic nervous system so it can mature and be able to interact with other people,” Gong said.

University Hospital is one of only two hospitals in the nation that have completed the full clinical trials to utilize this program.

“We’re the only safety net public hospital. The other hospital is a private hospital in New Jersey,” Gong explained.

On Tuesday, KSAT got to be there when Julia, her husband Tim, Jacob and his brother, Jimmy, walked back into the NICU where Jacob survived.

It was an emotional moment.

“They always told me that this will feel, in the long run, like just a small blip of his life. It may feel like it’s everlasting, like it’s forever in this moment. But we will overcome this. And she was so right,” Julia said.

Recent photo of Jacob (Credit: Julia Hernandez)

She hopes other NICU parents will use the Family Nurture Care Program, so their babies can thrive just like Jacob did.

Gong said that’s her goal.

“What we want to do is for everybody to get this, for every NICU to implement this. So we’re studying how to implement it so we can share that information,” she said.

If you want to learn more about the Family Nurture Care Program, head to University Health’s website.

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About the Authors:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.