As I cheered on thousands of runners as they passed Hand to Hold’s water stop at the recent Austin Marathon, I was struck by the diversity of the athletes. Runners of every age, ethnicity and ability made up the crowd of 14,000 runners. Some passed by quickly as they made their way confidently towards the finish line while others struggled to keep the pace. It reminded me of the diverse population represented in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) across the country.
Prematurity does not discriminate. While some demographics have a higher risk for preterm birth, teen moms as well as advanced maternal age mothers experience the trauma and uncertainty of having a baby born too soon, too small. Parents of every race, religion and socioeconomic standing find themselves facing similar struggles as they navigate the difficult journey of a NICU stay.
NICU nurse Katie Jo Dixon of Austin understands the challenges NICU parents face and decided to run her first marathon on behalf of Hand to Hold and the many families she has cared for as a nurse and as a photographer for the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Foundation, which provides the gift of remembrance photography for parents suffering the loss of a baby.
“The NICU is the great equalizer,” said Dixon. “It is a place where your background and income level does not matter. Parents from all walks of life find themselves in need of support,” she said.
Before participating in the marathon, Dixon had never run more than three miles. She trained for four months to complete the 26.2 mile race. She finished in four hours and 20 minutes and raised more than a $1,000 in support of Hand to Hold’s mission.
“It was a very meaningful experience because it required me to push myself past many physical boundaries,” Dixon reported. It was the connection to community and to Hand to Hold that kept me going. Hundreds of volunteers were cheering for us and people I did not know kept telling me I could do it,” she said.
As Dixon described the wall she hit at mile 22 and how she experienced anger, fatigue and sadness, I recalled my son’s long NICU journey and the many days I thought I just could not go on. I remember our nursing staff telling me that a NICU stay was a marathon, not a sprint and for the first time, I can truly appreciate the analogy. I can also related to the importance of a community of support as that is what carried me and my husband through our 109 day NICU experience.
Thanks to devoted and skilled NICU medical professionals like Katie Jo, NICU babies are experiencing better outcomes. And thanks to athletes who compete on behalf of Hand to Hold, generous corporate sponsors, individual donors and devoted volunteers, Hand to Hold is able to provide support, education and resources NICU parents need to ensure they finish the race strong and are ready to meet the needs of their medically fragile child long after a NICU stay.