The Halloween costumes for the tiniest of trick-or-treaters arrived at St. Elizabeth’s NICU Friday afternoon.
Shannon Ruzicka and Tracy Pella delivered the plastic tub filled with lady bugs and football jerseys and superhero capes made of felt and love. Two moms who know what it is like to have a baby come too soon and be so small.
In the soft light of the NICU, 2-day old Sean Homolka was transformed into a Husker — his red pants and jersey spread across his 4-pound body like paper doll cutouts — as he slept in his warm incubator on the fourth floor.
Down the hall, Amelia Louise Huenink became a cupcake, complete with sprinkles and a pom-pom cherry on top.
A 4-pound, 13-ounce bundle of sweetness, arms flung overhead, eyes peeking open to study the fuss: the squeals and squeaks and oh-how-adorables. Cellphone cameras clicking at Hollywood red carpet speed.
Amelia’s parents, Jessi and Seth, were expecting this costume delivery from Connected Forever, a Nebraska nonprofit that supports parents who experience premature birth or infant loss.
Jessi had met Tracy, the group’s co-founder, in early September after a nurse practitioner suggested the match.
“Support might be the best word for it, but it doesn’t even come close,” Jessi said. “She knows exactly what we’re going through.”
Amelia was delivered by C-section on Aug.3, when Jessi developed a rare and deadly syndrome related to pre-eclampsia.
The Lincoln couple’s firstborn weighed 1-pound, 1-ounce and has spent 12 weeks in the NICU; her due date was Nov. 9.
“I was planning on being pregnant on Halloween,” the Lincoln mom said.
Instead, she’s taken six months off from work to be with her baby, who, by Monday morning, had eclipsed the 5-pound mark.
Good news she shared with her family — and (of course) with Tracy. “We talk all the time.”
Connected Forever began in 2014, three years after the premature birth of Tracy and Jesse Pella’s twin sons. Cohen died the day he was born, June 1, 2011, and Cooper is now 6.
“I think the biggest thing for us is for people to know our resources are available,” Tracy said. “There’s a need out there and we want to fill it.”
The group provides support and resources to parents grieving infant loss and to those whose babies were born early — help with funeral expenses, financial assistance to NICU families, an online support group and community outreach and education.
They host Miracle Mom Meetups and have a peer support program, led by Shannon, that they hope to expand across the state.
“To have someone who has walked this journey, there’s just a different level of understanding and connectedness,” Tracy said.
Both of Shannon and Brad’s babies were born early, Burke at 34 weeks and Paige at 28 weeks.
“When I was in the NICU, I had a hard time even talking to friends and my family,” Shannon said. “To be able to talk to a parent who's been in that situation, instead of sympathy you can have empathy and there’s a huge difference.”
Which is how it came to be that 14 moms who understood each other perfectly gathered to cut felt for tiny babies to wear on Oct. 31 — turtles and pigs and cows, Elmos and Cookie Monsters and Minions, gumball machines and doughnuts and red strawberries with green stems.
They created costumes for preemie twins: a pair of M&Ms, a carton of milk and a cookie.
They gave their project a name: Costumes for the NICuties.
“We were going to start with St. Elizabeth and Bryan and then we thought, why can’t we do it for all the hospitals?” Shannon said.
In all, the moms created more than 200 Halloween classics, which have now been delivered to NICUs across the state. In Omaha and North Platte, Kearney and Scottsbluff, Grand Island and Hastings and Lincoln.
Last weekend, Connected Forever posted photos of Amelia the cupcake and Sean the football star on its Facebook page, much to the delight of its 2,044 members.
When I talked to Shannon on Monday, she was celebrating her son’s Oct. 30 birthday. Burke, the preemie, now 4.
On his first Halloween, Burke was on a ventilator in the St. Elizabeth NICU. A hospital volunteer brought Shannon his first Halloween costume, a small felt football.
The frightened mom placed it on top of her fragile new baby.
“It had been a really hard day,” she said. “It just made me feel normal for a minute.”