The goo-goos and ga-gas of children drowned out the sentimental chatter of adults Saturday as graduates and their parents celebrated life after school - the school of hard knocks.

The grads, all former patients of the University of Utah Hospital's Newborn Intensive Care Center, gathered to celebrate the center's 20th birthday. The hundreds of balloon-carrying participants had a lot to celebrate.New drugs, respiratory therapy techniques and equipment, and other advances in knowledge over the past two decades have helped the center steadily improve the care it offers.

"The most exciting change is that the survival of smaller babies is much better," said Dr. August Larry Jung, director of Newborn Medicine.

Premature babies born at 25 weeks gestation, who 20 years ago didn't have a fighting chance for survival, are now being saved.

Jung, who was at the U. Hospital 20 years ago, recalls the newborn unit "back then." It consisted of one room, one pediatrician and about four or five newborns on any given day.

In 1975, the speciality of neonatalogy - the study of infants from birth to 30 days old - was created. Now the U. Hospital has 13 neonatologists and a nursing unit that can accommodate 30 babies.

Newborns with respiratory distress aren't the only ones being transported to the U. Hospital. Jung said more and more mothers who go into premature labor are being transferred, as well.

This, too, has reduced the mortality rate.

An estimated 7,000 babies have been treated at the U.'s newborn intensive care unit since it was established in 1968. Now one of the Mountain West's biggest and most active units, it regularly receives newborns from Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

One of those lauding the center Saturday was Dianne Berg, of Rock Springs, Wyo.

Her daughter, born four weeks premature, was transferred to the U. Hospital from St. Mark's Hospital. Diagnosed as having bronchial pulmonary dysplasia, the 4 pound 15 ounce baby spent almost nine months in the ICU. When her parents finally took her home, she was on 50 percent oxygen and a roller coaster ride to recovery.

But Saturday, 11-year-old Angela Berg was holding her own at the shooting gallery and fish pond and in the Moonwalker.

Ballet lessons are helping her develop her motor skills, and ritalin has been prescribed to control her attention span. Angela, who's been off oxygen for a year, now attends a public school.

"Her development is at all different levels of progression all the time," Dianne Berg said. "But we have had so many major worries over the years, the minor ones don't bother us too much."

The children, their siblings and parents had few worries Saturday when the birthday music started and festivities began. Medical and insurance worries behind, it was time to celebrate a future of good health.