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TWO LIFETIMES LATER, PREEMIES SURPRISE NURSE

September 04, 2013

By BROOKE EDWARDS STAGGS
ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

ORANGE – On a recent Tuesday, Charlene Keene was pulled from rounds she’s made in the neonatal intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital of Orange County since 1979.

The nurse was ushered into a small waiting room, where she was greeted by a semicircle of eager, mostly unfamiliar faces.

An awkward moment passed until she heard: “We’re the McNamaras.”

Confusion then dissolved into a teary, hug-filled reunion three decades in the making.

“Certain families you just really remember,” Keene told the clan.

“You were one of those families.”

Tim and LeighAnn McNamara were told early on in their relationship that they probably couldn’t have children.

LeighAnn had dealt with painful ovarian cysts that made her body a less than ideal environment for nurturing new life. So while they very much wanted to build a family, they decided to hope for the best and let nature run its course.

In early 1982, when Tim was 25 and LeighAnn was 23, they discovered they were expecting. And at the ultrasound, the miracles just kept coming.

“They didn’t see just one baby, they saw three,” Ashley McNamara said, recounting the story her mom has often shared.

LeighAnn fainted at the news.

Six months later, LeighAnn was getting ready to leave her Santa Ana home and go to the hospital for three months of bed rest, hoping to keep her high-risk pregnancy going as long as she could. But before she could do that, on Aug. 7, at just 27 weeks, her water broke.

Doctors at St. Joseph Hospital of Orange tried to slow LeighAnn’s labor, but soon had to rush her into an operating room for a Caesarean delivery.

Ashley weighed 1 pound and 14 ounces, Brian was 1 pound and 13.5 ounces while Shane weighed in at 2 pounds, 2 ounces.

At that time, St. Joseph staff told the McNamaras their babies were the youngest to survive such a premature delivery there. Doctors cautioned the infants might not live long, and if they did, they’d face a long road.

The gravity of the situation didn’t quite sink in.

“Thank goodness we were really young,” Tim said.

Ashley, Brian and Shane were immediately transferred to the adjacent neonatal intensive care unit at CHOC. They were intubated and placed on life support. They underwent surgery to repair valves on their peanut-sized hearts.

Five days later, Shane died.

Ashley spent three months in the NICU, with few lingering complications.

Brian was touch and go for months. About five or six times, he stopped breathing and needed CPR.

He spent a little more than a year at the hospital, undergoing multiple surgeries to repair his tiny lungs and underdeveloped eyes, and to remove fluid that gathered in his brain cavity. He still weighed just 5 pounds when he went home, LeighAnn said, with doctors saying they didn’t know if he’d ever walk or talk.

Brian was on oxygen until he was 3 years old. Ashley would occasionally pop the tube out of his nose when her parents weren’t looking, her mom recalled, saying, “He doesn’t like it!”

Recently, Brian – who now lives in Anaheim – took time out from coaching cross country at Cypress High School and pursuing his master’s in special education to run his first marathon in Seattle.

“He definitely defied the odds,” Ashley said.

For the last six years, Ashley, who lives in Portola Hills, has worked as a child life specialist at CHOC, advocating for children and their families as they deal with hospitalization for anything from surgery to cancer.

“This is where she’s meant to be,” Tim said.

One day, Ashley might be working on the hospital playroom or arranging a celebrity visit to brighten a young patient’s day. The next, she might be providing bereavement services, relying on the example her parents set in honoring the memory of her brother Shane.

“They always talk about him with us,” she said, during visits to his grave site or as they released balloons to heaven. “I think it kept his spirit alive.”

Ashley doesn’t often share her own story with patients. But sometimes it helps.

“They can see, basically, what a miracle I am,” she said. “Parents get told the worst-case scenario. I can give them hope.”

Doctors and nurses who cared for the McNamara babies occasionally find their way into their lives again.

When Brian was running cross country at Mater Dei High School, he shared his story of survival with a teammate. Turns out, the teammate’s mom was a NICU nurse when Brian and Ashley were there.

She reunited with him at a cross country meet, lifting his shirt to reveal scars he still carries. Then she told him, “You’re the reason I do what I do.”

Dr. Maria Minon was the family’s pediatrician for years. Today, she’s chief medical officer for CHOC, running into Ashley in the halls and LeighAnn at their neighborhood grocery.

“It’s so wonderful to be able to see them now,” Minon said, amazed at the twins’ good health.

Dr. David Hicks, a pulmonologist who performed surgery on Brian, became a family friend and dines at the McNamara’s restaurants, Fish House Market & Grill and Wise Guys Pizzeria, in Orange.

Ashley didn’t know anyone else was still on staff until she began assisting a woman whose daughter was having surgery at CHOC.

As she counseled the mother, the woman mentioned she worked at the hospital’s NICU in the 1980s. Ashley told her she’d been a patient at that time, and the woman immediately recognized her name.

Ashley asked who else was still around, with one name on her mind: Charlene.

“Growing up, we heard your name,” Ashley told Keene, saying her mom shared stories of the nurse who cared for them.

“She praised you.”

Keene touched her hand to her heart, her eyes shining.

She was 24 years old at the time and pregnant herself when she began caring for Ashley and Brian. Photos of her holding the McNamara babies are included in their baby books.

“As much time as we spent here, you guys were family,” LeighAnn told the veteran nurse.

On Sunday, Ashley took the first step toward forming her own family, exchanging vows with Adam Blalock. A remembrance table at the ceremony included a photo of Shane.

Given all she’s been through and the tragedies she sees at the hospital daily, Ashley said people often ask whether she’s scared to have children of her own.

“Children do get sick and parents do get sick. It happens," Ashley said. “But it doesn’t scare me at all. I’ve always wanted to be a mom.”

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