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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Chris Pearson kisses Jessica Pearson as she holds their 1-day-old son, CJ Pearson, in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit at University Hospital in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018. CJ was born six weeks early.

SALT LAKE CITY — Morgan Sumsion came into the world a lot earlier than her parents expected, landing her and a twin sister in the University Hospital's Newborn Intensive Care Unit.

"It was very challenging," said her dad, Cory Sumsion. "We truly owe the lives of our two oldest children to the NICU team." His twin girls were born after 26 weeks in gestation, whereas, a healthy pregnancy is considered to be 39 to 40 weeks long.

To make matters worse, Morgan Sumsion, now 19, was born with a neural tube defect, spina bifida. Doctors told her parents she would require a wheelchair and a lot of assistance throughout her life.

She has since proved them wrong, and has great respect for the care she received during her time at the NICU. She is even pursuing a career as a pediatric nurse practitioner because of her life's experiences.

The University Hospital's 55-bed NICU on Wednesday celebrated a milestone of 50 years in operation, beginning with the profound and pioneering insight of Dr. Larry Jung, who recognized a need to care for tiny, premature babies and babies suffering severe illnesses in 1968.

With just four beds in a single room of the hospital, it was the first NICU in the region and in Utah. Staff was limited, working with borrowed equipment outfitted to provide 24/7 care for extremely small patients.

The trailblazing NICU, with a team of 22 neonatologists and at least 160 support staff now cares for about 600 newborns each year. Many of the clinical techniques used to sustain life in newborn babies 50 years ago are still used today, though maybe more state of the art now, said Dr. Brad Yoder, head of neonatology at the hospital.

"It takes a special kind of person to work in the newborn intensive care unit," NICU nurse manager Carol Henderson said Wednesday. Characteristics of NICU staff members, she said, include intelligence, patience and motivation, as well as compassion and devotion. She said "an unbreakable bond" is built between families and medical care providers arising from the need to keep such a tiny baby alive.

"The babies and the families and the relationships that are formed are just incredibly special. You're making a difference in people's lives," Henderson said. "I think the NICU is a special place for a lot of people. It is wonderful to celebrate all the hard work that has gone into it."

Chris and Jessica Pearson, of Cottonwood Heights, are grateful for all the coaching they are getting when it comes to their nearly 2-day-old baby boy, CJ, who was born six weeks early on Tuesday morning. He will likely be a patient at the U.'s NICU until his mid-October due date, but so far he's healthy, which is more than the new parents could ask for.

"We feel really blessed to be able to have him here," said Jessica Pearson. She had originally planned to deliver at a neighboring hospital, but ended up at the fully equipped University Hospital on the advice of her doctor.

"It was not exactly how we had planned it," Chris Pearson said. "We're big-time planners and this definitely put a wrench in our plans."

The proud father said the nursery is decorated and ready to receive CJ, as "we're ready to be parents. We just didn't think it would happen this early."

"He is really incredible," Chris Pearson said.

The specialized care is much appreciated, as CJ needs a lot of rest and help with feeding. The NICU staff is also monitoring his breathing, as premature babies often struggle with the simple life-giving task.

"For what was kind of scary and sudden, it is the best-case scenario," Jessica Pearson said, adding that she's content to have her firstborn in the NICU until he is strong enough to come home.

"You trust these people with your child," said another NICU parent, Robert Turner. Two of his three children were born early, one at 30 weeks and another at 28.

"If you've ever been to an amusement park and been on the roller coaster, with its ups and downs, that's what having a baby in the NICU is like," the Taylorsville dad said. "You have good days and bad days."

He said holding his less-than-2-pound babies was like lifting a loaf of bread.

Thankfully, Turner said, Kyle and William, who are now 6 and 4 years old respectively, are growing and doing much better than they were during the first several months of their lives.

"They've had so many shots and seen so many needles in their lives, they don't sense pain," Turner said. "They're boys and they're very active and don't seem to worry about getting hurt."

The family returns to the U.'s NICU often, he said, as it was "such a big part of our lives."

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"It's more than a typical birth experience, where you come to the hospital and stay three days and then go home with your baby. You get kind of attached," Turner said. "They really spend a lot of time caring for your kid. They're like the mothers when you're not there."

Henderson said her staff take their jobs very seriously, like any caretaker would.

And, Yoder keeps a sculpted replica of a premature baby's hand, barely an inch tall, on his desk as a reminder of Jung, who designed it, but also to symbolize the meaning of his work — the lifesaving and sometimes revolutionary care provided to babies, whom, he said, at one point in history didn't survive.