Kathleen Nagamoto, a registered nurse, gives formula milk to Kalina Nguyen, born on Oct. 27, at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Fountain Valley Regional Hospital on Oct. 29. (SCOTT SMELTZER, HB Independent / October 29, 2013)

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Bethany Torres' first son, Wyatt, was given the nickname "the Goliath baby" by nurses when he was born in March 2004.

The hefty 9-pound, 14-ounce newborn, however, wasn't immune to complications and only a day after his birth was being admitted to Fountain Valley Regional Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit.

Torres, 28, of Corona, isn't alone in her experience as a scared new mom. Out of 38,000 babies born in the county each year, 3,500 are premature and in need of intensive care, according to Celia Wheeler, executive director of the Orange County March of Dimes. Wheeler said she didn't have a number for the newborns like Wyatt, who while not underweight still need focused hospital attention to get the right start in life.

Fountain Valley Regional's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) are celebrating 30 years of service to such families.

Torres said Wyatt, born about one week late, was admitted into the NICU after showing signs of an infection and jaundice.

"It was really hard for me because I had this big, full-term baby," Torres said. "You never think that your baby's going to end up in the NICU when it's that size."

She said she was a little overwhelmed seeing her son in such a vulnerable position, but was calmed by the hospital staff, which included her mother, who has worked for Fountain Valley Regional for 30 years.

Fortunately for Torres, Wyatt's time in intensive care was limited. She said he spent about five days in the hospital, receiving intravenous antibiotics for his infection and laying under bilirubin lights for his jaundice.

However, Torres found herself in Fountain Valley Regional again in 2008, this time in its PICU after giving birth to a 6-pound daughter, Sharlet.

Though a full-term baby as well, Sharlet also needed hospital treatment. Five weeks after she was born, she had

contracted respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a condition that infects the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.

"She started to act like she had a cold, like a stuffy nose and everything," Torres said. "I ended up taking her to the doctor and they said it kind of looks like a cold and to give her Tylenol for her fever, and if she gets worse to bring her back."

Sharlet did get worse, her face turning a bluish-purple when she cried or coughed. The infant spent nine days in Fountain Valley's PICU, undergoing breathing treatments and having mucus suctioned out of her, Torres said.

"I didn't sleep for days being at the hospital with her," the mother said. "They had her on monitors that if she stopped breathing or her breathing patterns got too low, they would have to come in and they would pick her up and hit her chest and suction her out. I've never seen that much mucus come out of a little, tiny baby. It was awful."

Sharlet made a full recovery, but Torres said her daughter has been more susceptible to colds and other respiratory infections since.

"She got another cold-like sickness four months after that," she said. "Luckily, it wasn't as bad.… Her immunity is not as good as my other kids. She does get sick a lot more because of her contracting [RSV]."


Inside NICU

Dr. Veeriah Chundu strolled through the dimly lit NICU on a Wednesday afternoon, checking up on his patients as they lay in incubators or radiant warmers.

The NICU medical director briefly monitored a baby born after a 34-week gestation who was gradually improving after having breathing problems.