PALO ALTO — Something happened last month that showed just how enduring a bond neonatal intensive care nurse Vilma Wong has with her impossibly tiny patients, even after 32 years on the job.
Wong was working a day shift earlier this month at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital when she spotted a young man in blue scrubs near one of the incubators.
All medical personnel have to check in at the nurse’s station before examining the prematurely born infants whose frail bodies are tethered to their cots by feeding and breathing tubes.
“Who are you?’’ she asked second-year pediatric resident Brandon Seminatore, who is training to become a child neurologist.
“His last name sounded very familiar,” she recalled. “I kept asking where he was from and he told me that he was from San Jose, California, and that, as a matter of fact, he was a premature baby born at our hospital. I then got very suspicious because I remember being the primary nurse to a baby with the same last name.’’
To confirm her hunch, she asked him if his dad was a police officer.
“There was a big silence,’’ she said, “and then he asked if I was Vilma.’’
Seminatore was stunned Wong remembered caring for him 28 years ago — out of the tens of thousands of kids who have passed through the unit since then. She and fellow nurse Kas Pilon are legendary in his family for their kindness and tender care.
“Meeting Vilma was a surreal experience,’’ he said. “She cares deeply for her patients, to the point that she was able to remember a patient’s name almost three decades later.’’
Seminatore weighed only two pounds and six ounces — the size of a small pineapple — when he was rushed in April 1990 after his mother’s emergency C-section to the neonatal intensive care unit known as the NICU (pronounced NICK-U).
Now, he weighs 134 pounds more and at 5-feet-8 is considerably taller than the 5-pound, 2-ounce baby who left the hospital after more than 40 days in the unit. But he has the same dark eyes and alert expression.
When Seminatore’s mom heard he was doing a month-long rotation in the NICU, she urged him to ask about both women.
“They were the most wonderful nurses,’’ said Laura Seminatore, who was a kindergarten teacher in 1990 when her only son was born and is now the principal at St. John Vianney Catholic school in San Jose. “They helped calm a lot of our fears.’’
Seminatore had done a similar month-long stint in the unit last year without realizing the nurses from his infancy both still worked there. He said he didn’t ask, figuring they had either moved on or already retired. Wong, now 58, said she loves her work and has no plans to retire.
Once Seminatore realized he had found Wong, he immediately texted his parents. It didn’t take long for his dad, retired San Jose police officer David Seminatore, to retrieve an old family photo album and find a picture of Wong cradling Seminatore on her lap.
In the photo, Brandon had just had the breathing tube removed and looks remarkably chipper. By that time, he was able to eat on his own and was beginning to thrive, Wong remembered.
For years until Seminatore was 11 or 12, the family made a point of attending the NICU’s annual reunion, which will be held later this month for families whose children were treated there. Brandon has two younger sisters who were also born in the same hospital.
Seminatore, who lives with his husband across the street from the hospital in housing for medical residents, said it’s unclear how much his own history played into his decision to become a healer, though he said it might be a factor.
For Wong, meeting Seminatore for the second time was a joy.
“As a nurse,’’ she said, “it’s kind of like your reward.’’
The heartwarming story, which the hospital posted on its Facebook page, has been shared more than 3,000 times and drawn more than 700 plaudits. Some messages are from other families who remember “Auntie Vilma’’ fondly.
“Vilma was like my son’s second mom,’’ one woman said.
Even those who have never met her were touched.
“The world needs more Vilmas,’’ one said. “Thank you for everything.’’