HONOLULU - Back by popular demand, the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Tripler Army Medical Center, here, hosted the eighth annual NICU Graduate Reunion, Dec. 3, to reunite with those who, at one time or another, called the Tripler NICU their second home.

A special team of NICU nurse volunteers organized this year's bash to include a live musical performance and a surprise visit from Santa with students from Leilehua High School dressed as elves to help spread holiday cheer.

More than 180 attendees, including parents and siblings, filled the party room for a chance to reunite with the nurse who took special care of their newborns during their NICU stay.

"It gives the nurses an opportunity to visit with the families and see how their graduates have grown," said Patricia Wilhelm, Tripler NICU head nurse.

Wilhelm greeted many families during the day's festivities and even remembered the Galbreath family who received care at the Tripler NICU for their newborn babies nine years ago.

Retired Air Force Maj. Jarrard Galbreath was assigned to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam when his wife Deanna gave birth to their set of triplet girls at the medical center. The parents easily recalled their NICU experience as if it were yesterday.

"One reason why we decided to stay in Hawaii after retirement was due to the staff at Tripler, their attention to care, and because of the continuity of care we received at Tripler," said retired Maj. Galbreath.

During the summer of 2008, the bed capacity at Tripler's NICU was at a 100 percent occupancy rate. Kaiser Permanente and Kapiolani Medical Center were also full, and the new parents were unsure where they would receive the specialized medical care they needed for their preemies.

Deanna Galbreath explained, "The Tripler NICU worked everything out so we could stay here. They actually moved the babies from the NICU to the PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit), so that they could accommodate these three babies. We were so happy to be able to stay here," she said.

At 32 weeks and six days, the new parents were finally able to return home with their newborns.

Like many families, the Galbreath's NICU journey was a memorable experience they will always share together and with the nurses who provide special care to the tiniest of patients in the hospital.

"Experiencing a traumatic event together, it's a very bonding experience," said Lorraine Ortega, a registered nurse at Tripler's NICU. "And they (the parents) lean on us, you know."

"But I'm telling you, the parents are the real heroes," Ortega added. "The moms and the dads are the real heroes because they're in the trenches for their babies for life, 24/7. They are proactive for their children. They get therapy for their children. They represent their children to society…so, they're the real heroes, the real warriors, no doubt. They are fighting the good fight!"