DALLAS - Midnight to morning is a quiet time just about anywhere.
There are few cars on the streets, even fewer people, but some things never slow down. Most important among them: the fight to survive.
Every night at every north Texas hospital, that fight is waged by patients, families and staff.
We visited Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. Specifically, four families in the Margot Perot Neonatal Intensive Care Center (NICU), fighting along with their children just to make it through a few hours in Dallas after dark.
For a premature or low birth weight newborn, this is the only place to be.
Eight-hundred babies come through each year, receiving special treatment in any of the 47 beds in the unit. This is a family-centered care facility, so parents are encouraged to come as well. Not just as visitors, but as part of the overall precision care provided to these young patients.
Five private rooms are available to them to stay as long as they like. In some cases, in the middle of the night, we found moms and dads, fast asleep in the same room as their newborn.
The Margot Perot Center is a Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, handling some of the most serious cases among the youngest of patients.
On advice from a doctor back home, the Gremillion family brought little Brayden here all the way from New Roads, Louisiana, for surgery number seven. Even before he was born, his survival was in doubt.
“I loved him so much, and I hadn't even seen him yet,” Brayden’s father, Shane, told News 8. “They was talkin' about death this and that, because he was so early.”
Brayden is a twin. His brother, home in Louisiana with his grandmother, is in much better shape.
However, Brayden Gremillion is a fighter.
He weighed just over a pound at birth last November. He now weighs well over seven pounds, and is improving every day.
Each year, 6,000 babies are born at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. Only the rarest of early delivery or low birth weight babies, like Alexandria Stewart, are brought to the Perot NICU for its special care.
When she was born in March, Alexandria was three months early, weighed about one and half-pounds, and for a little while needed assistance in breathing.
At two in the morning, mother Arica, staying in one of the private rooms nearby, came in, positioned Alexandria (whom she calls her little “wiggle worm”) in her lap and reads fairy tales to her (Rapunzel is one of the favorites).
Sometimes it goes on for hours, until mother and daughter are fast asleep.
Arica believes they are bonding, and that her daughter already recognizes her voice.
“She listens to my heartbeat," Arica said. "I like to place my hand on her back, and I can feel her little heart beating."
The Perot Center encourages parents to be a part of each moment of the extensive special care being provided. They believe that once these babies are large enough to be picked up, “skin-to-skin” contact is an important factor in care and treatment.
As the night hours turn into early morning, each nurse in the unit usually takes care of two babies at a time, but on some occasions, that number can go up to four. Besides the nurses and specialized equipment, there is always a neonatologist (medical doctor specializing in care for premature and low birth weight babies) in the unit.
New technology and the latest medical advances have resulted in near miraculous treatment, even for babies with very serious ailments.
Ashlee Funkhouser is a good example.
She’s home now, but this is how medical specialists described her difficulties, treatment and prognosis from her arrival at the NICU until her departure:
“Ashlee suffered a congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a very serious medical condition in which the diaphragm muscle develops a weak spot or hole. It's a spontaneous, congenital condition with an unknown cause. Through that opening, a newborn's intestines can escape into the chest cavity and cause major problems, including pushing the heart to one side of the chest, and impeding growth of one or both lungs. In this case, Ashlee's left lung was not allowed to develop and her heart was pushed to the right side of her chest. Since surgery, in which doctors repaired the weak spot in her diaphragm and put the intestines back into place, she has been thriving and getting bigger and stronger every day. Her lung is beginning to expand and grow, and doctors say it likely will develop into a normal lung. And little Ashlee should not have any lingering medical issues as she grows up. Her heart also is expected to shift back over into a more normal position in the chest.”
Ashlee’s mother, Stephanie, spent many a night sleeping in a chair next to her daughter. Now, the family is together.
Not all of the young patients at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas start their life in the Margot Perot Center or at the hospital.
Aryan Gallamore was born a month ago in Tyler, Texas, as one of a set of twins. His brother George was stillborn. Since then, Aryan has had his own set of serious complications. Now, as he struggles to get stronger, his mother Jeniffer must be there for him, while continuing to grieve the son she has lost.
At 4:30 a.m., watching Aryan fight for each breath, she tells us there are no easy days.
“I've got to put my other child... not to the side, but you know, he's always in my heart,” she explained. “I just have to let him stay in my heart and let him know that I'm gonna always love him, but I've got to be here for your brother... Momma's got to be strong.”
Today, Aryan is doing very well, Texas Health Dallas officials say.
He’s up to four pounds and getting bigger every day; an answer to yet another family’s prayer for a miracle and another victory in the battle to give each young child a fighting chance to make it through Dallas after dark.
Update: Since this story was shot, there have been some developments in the lives of the babies featured in it: Ashlee Funkhouser is home with her parents and doing great. Brayden Gremillion is back home in Louisiana, also doing great. Alexandria Stewart 'graduated' from the NICU, and is now in a special care nursery. Aryan Gallamore is still in the NICU, slowly getting bigger.
WFAA would like to give our special thanks to the Families and Staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and the Margot Perot Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for providing us unprecedented overnight access during such a delicate time in their lives.