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Elizabeth Weil’s first visit to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford was filled with tears.
“I didn’t even know what a NICU was,” Elizabeth recalls. But she had gone into preterm labor, and her care team at the hospital where she planned to deliver discovered that her unborn baby’s intestines had ruptured in utero.
Elizabeth and her baby needed specialty care, urgently.
She was rushed by ambulance to Packard Children’s Hospital, where she delivered her son Matthew. He weighed just 3.5 pounds at birth and was immediately whisked into surgery to save his life.
Elizabeth remembers being pushed to the NICU in a wheelchair. She peered through the isolette to have her first real glimpse at her son. It wasn’t the experience she and her husband, Kevin, anticipated when preparing for the birth of their first child.
“He wasn’t like the cuddly newborns you see on TV,” Elizabeth says. “It feels like you’re seeing a baby more like a specimen that’s hooked up to all these machines. You think at that point you’re never going to have a child that’s normal or real.”
Over the coming days and weeks, Elizabeth and Kevin rode a roller coaster of emotions. They weren’t sure if Matthew would make it. Doctors tried to determine what caused the premature labor and Matthew’s ruptured intestines. In a situation that felt helpless, Elizabeth and Kevin created routines to feel some sense of control. Elizabeth found time to get outside and run every morning, then headed straight for a 14- to 18-hour shift in the NICU.
For 90 days, the couple watched Matthew slowly make progress, undergo multiple surgeries, and transition from our Level IV NICU—for the most critically ill babies—into units with more stable infants. Finally, they were able to return home as a family of three for the first time, with Matthew using a feeding tube for nutrition.
“That first experience in the NICU with Matthew was the longest, hardest, most impactful experience of my life,” Elizabeth says. She built deep relationships with her son’s care team members, including a nurse, Lisa, with whom she is still in contact nearly a decade later.
But little did Elizabeth know that those 90 days in the NICU with Matthew wouldn’t be her only stay. Two years later, her newborn twins, Kate and Alex, would also spend time in the NICU to receive treatment for jaundice and help regulate their body temperature. Elizabeth jokes that each of her children had their “tour of duty” in the Packard Children’s NICU.
Today, the three Weil children are thriving. Nine-year-old Matthew is a sporty LEGO engineer and a math whiz. His surgery and hospital experience as a newborn has helped shape his personality—he is proud of his scar and is learning all about the human body. Perhaps he is a physician in the making!
The twins’ personalities are bright and unique. “Kate reads voraciously, outruns the boys, and runs our family,” Elizabeth says. “And Alex has a hilariously dry sense of humor. He gives mommy massages and is the STEM builder, artist, and soccer star.”
In gratitude for the outstanding care her family received at our hospital, Elizabeth joined the board of directors for the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health and is a loyal supporter of our annual Summer Scamper 5k and kids’ fun run.
“Packard changed my life,” she says. “The hospital and care team got us to where we are today.”
This November, the Weils set up a gift match challenge in honor of Prematurity Awareness Month. Every gift donated to the campaign will be doubled, up to $10,000. The funds will provide vital supplies to support families in our NICU, from books for parents to read to their babies, to Kangaroo Chairs that facilitate skin-to-skin contact and bonding between parents and their baby.
When describing what giving back means to her, Elizabeth reflects on how profoundly difficult it is to have a baby in the unit. It can be painful to see photos of pudgy, cute babies on social media when you are watching your tiny infant struggle to gain a gram of weight.
“Being a NICU survivor is like earning a badge of honor,” Elizabeth says. “Channeling all of the misery and the emotions for something good—to share with other moms and parents that they’re not alone—is what I want to do. I want NICU families to know that what you’re going through is so hard, but you’re in the best hands. Know that you’re going to emerge with your own badges of honor because of it.”
Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing your story and for rallying behind premature babies and their families. Your generosity is building a brighter future for Packard Children’s patients just beginning the journey you have been on, and we are so grateful.
Make a donation in support of Prematurity Awareness Month and participate in Elizabeth’s gift match challenge here.