Tiny and Mighty: Photographer Mom Showcases Resilience of NICU Grads

Amanda Collins Bernier
Baystateparent Magazine
Abigail and Emily, born at 25 weeks.

Kerry Callahan, a newborn photographer from West Boylston, was just over halfway through her pregnancy -- 22 weeks along -- when she went into labor. 

It was her third baby, and up until then everything about her pregnancy had been normal. Scared but hopeful, she underwent a cervical cerclage -- a procedure in which a doctor sews the cervix closed -- to help prevent a preterm delivery. 

It lasted two weeks. 

Hailey, who was due in June, was born Jan. 4, 2016. She weighed 1 pound, 10 ounces; so small that her tiny eyes were still fused shut. 

For the five months Hailey spent in the NICU at UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, Callahan felt a constant internal tug-of-war. She wanted to be with her baby, who spent the first six weeks of her life intubated, but also had two children at home and a working husband. She’d spend mornings and weekends at the hospital with Hailey, then go home and try to bring some semblance of normalcy to her older children. But nothing felt normal. 

“You’re like a deer in the headlights,” Callahan said of the early days in the NICU.

She found support in the community of other parents all going through the same thing.

“I remember when I was brand new there, this other mom sort of yelled over to me across the aisle. She asked me about my baby and told me about hers,” she said. “Then eventually you’re not the new mom anymore. And other new moms come in and you take them under your wing and tell them it’s going to be OK.”

Today, Hailey is a spirited, healthy kindergartner, but Callahan will never forget the terrifying first few months of her life. For many parents of preemies, fear can overshadow the joy of welcoming a new baby.

“What you need during that time is hope,” she said. 

Callahan, now a mom of four, is providing that hope by capturing Hailey, and other NICU grads, with her camera. She photographs former NICU patients who are thriving today as “big kids,” each holding a framed photo of themselves from their NICU stay, along with their gestational age and weight at birth. The portraits capture the fighting spirit of the littlest babies.

Anastasia, born at 24 weeks.

Dozens of children from across Massachusetts are featured in Callahan’s photography project. 

One of the tiniest is Anastasia, who was born at 24 weeks and weighed just 1 pound, 8 ounces. 

Many of the children, like Hailey, were born premature. Others were born full-term, but still spent time in the NICU for various reasons or complications. 

Five of the portraits hang in the NICU at UMass, a welcome sight for families and staff there. 

“Both families and faculty love seeing pictures of success stories that come out of the NICU,” said Dr. Lawrence M. Rhein, Chief of Neonatology, a triplet who spent time in the NICU as a newborn. “Some days, it is the inspiration we need as a pick us up when the unit is busy or we have a sad case. Everyone in the unit is giving all they have to ensure the best possible long-term outcomes - having the inspirational stories and pictures inspires us to keep working hard, and also makes us proud of the work we're doing.” 

Callahan's portraits hanging at UMass Memorial Medical Center.

The collection was also made into “Hailey’s Book of Hope,” a photo book that, with the help of sponsors, Callahan has sent to NICUs around the country. 

Recently, the book made its way into the hands of parents who had booked a newborn photo session with Callahan but ended up having their baby six weeks early. 

“They said it helped them to see all these babies thriving. That was a full circle moment,” Callahan said.

Callahan would love to showcase more NICU grads and hopes to eventually make the project a yearly endeavor. She is also looking for sponsors to help fund more books. 

“I love the exposure for these babies, and showing how strong they are,” she said. “To see them then, and to see them now, it’s just incredible.” 

For more information about “Hailey’s Book of Hope” email kerry@kerrycallahanphotography.com. 

Cecelia, born at 32 weeks.
Cici, born at 30 weeks.
Emma, born at 27 weeks.
Emmett and Jude, born at 36 weeks.
Eva, born at 28 weeks.
Hope, born at 27 weeks.
Joey, born at 28 weeks.
John, born at 27 weeks.
Kennedy, spent 34 days in the NICU.
Macy, born at 31 weeks.
Maizlee, born at 30 weeks.
Mia, born at 25 weeks.
Poppy, born at 31 weeks.
Kerry Callahan's daughter Hailey, born at 24 weeks.