December 2, 2014
Photo by Paul Rotzinger
Connor Topilko was a very tiny newborn.
Luckily, he and his family had the support of an Alberta Health Services nurse with a passion for health and a big, big heart.
Today, Connor is a healthy and active four-year-old boy who recently returned to the Royal Alexandra Hospital with his family to thank their guardian angel: registered nurse Gwenn O’Neill, who works in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
“While you’re in (the NICU), it’s the most challenging and stressful time of your life and we don’t always take the opportunity to say thank you to the nurses,” says mother Sarah Topilko.
To show their everlasting gratitude, Sarah, her husband Trevor and their sons Connor and Bentley surprised O’Neill with flowers and a package of chocolates — a 2-lb. 1-oz. package, reflecting Connor’s birth weight — during an emotional reunion at the Royal Alex.
O’Neill immediately recognized the family.
“I’m honoured. I’m touched. Very shocked and very happy that I made such an impact on somebody’s life,” O’Neill says.
The sense of joy during the reunion stood in stark contrast to the drama that played out at the hospital four years prior.
Sarah had developed HELLP syndrome — a life-threatening variant of pre-eclampsia — during her pregnancy and entered multi-organ failure.
Connor — the couple’s first child — had an emergency delivery at 27 weeks, while Sarah fought to survive on the operating table.
“It was overwhelming,” recalls Trevor. “It seemed like there’s two dozen people running around (the operating room). Everybody had a job, everybody knew what they were doing.”
By the time Sarah was stable enough to see Connor, his weight had dropped to 1 lb. 10 oz.
“They wheeled me up in my wheelchair and I was still very weak,” says Sarah. “I finally stood up and saw him in the isolette. My knees just dropped out from underneath me. Luckily, the nurse had the wheelchair underneath me.”
Connor remained in hospital for 65 days and, during that time, O’Neill provided extraordinary support for the family.
She made outfits for the newest member of the Topilko family, recognizing the fact clothes aren’t available for newborns as small as Connor.
“Being an NICU nurse, she knew they were perfect because they’d just open up and all the cords and wires were accessible,” says Sarah. “It was probably the most wonderful gift anyone could have given me.”
Sarah says O’Neill also provided the couple a sense of normalcy during a time of stress and uncertainty.
“Two weeks after we had Connor, it was our anniversary and, of course, we weren’t going to go do anything,” says Sarah.
O’Neill encouraged the couple to leave the hospital and celebrate, reassuring them she would care for Connor throughout the night.
O’Neill even offered to make a dinner reservation for the couple.
“Because she was there, we had the peace to know that we could go out for dinner for two hours and he would be OK,” says Sarah.
Throughout Connor’s two-month stay in hospital, Sarah says O’Neill “just made sure that we were comforted. She knows that this was one of the most challenging things we’ve gone through.”
Adds Trevor: “Without (O’Neill), it would have been very different. Gwenn went above and beyond her job; the way she made us feel. She made us all come together as a family.”
Connor has been told about ‘Nurse Gwenn’ and gave her a big hug after presenting her with flowers and chocolate.
O’Neill was clearly choked up by the gesture.
“It means that it’s all worth it,” says the nurse. “It means everything that you’re doing — that you’re pouring your heart into — really means something to the family. It’s just so rewarding.”