Rady Children's Specialists

Saving Grace

For Grace’s whole life, Rady Children’s had been woven into the fabric of her family.

A grateful mother praises the Rady Children’s NICU for caring for her tiny miracle

By Christina Orlovsky 

They say that good things come in small packages. For Laura and Rob Mello, their most precious package came into the world at a tiny 2 pounds 12 ounces.

On October 10, 2013, Grace Betty Mello graced her parents with her presence 10 weeks early. Within a day she was whisked away to spend the first 45 days of her life in her first home: the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Rady Children’s Hospital.

“I had a really easy pregnancy,” recalls Laura, who was looking forward to welcoming her first child, a baby girl, on her December 15 due date. “But then I started bleeding.”

With complications that included pre-eclampsia and hypertension, Laura’s pregnancy went from “really easy” to anything but. She needed an emergency C-section to deliver her baby more than two months ahead of schedule. That began the family’s NICU journey.

“I knew things were bad with the baby when my husband walked into my room crying,” Laura says. “He said, ‘She’s so small and it’s so hard for her to breathe.’ Her lungs were tiny, and her stomach would cave in because she was trying so hard to take a breath. She was intubated in the NICU where I delivered, and the next day the decision was made to transfer her to Rady Children’s.”

For Laura, that decision was a welcome one.

“I think many parents would be anxious about being separated from their baby. Not me,” she says. “I knew there was no better place for her to be.”

A Lifetime of Trust
The confidence Laura had in Rady Children’s was nothing new. For her whole life, Rady Children’s had been woven into the fabric of her family. Growing up, her father was a Hospital executive, and her mother was an active member of the Poway chapter of the Rady Children’s Hospital Auxiliary. Laura tagged along, volunteering at fundraising events as a child, and eventually helped found the Young Professionals Auxiliary Unit.

“When I was young, I volunteered and gave back because I knew there were a lot of hurt and sick kids in San Diego and that Rady Children’s could help them like no other place could,” she says. “When I got older, I developed my own passion for the Hospital. I was blessed with health as a child and never needed the Hospital’s services, but I really wanted to give back and help people who did need them.”

Little did she know at the time that years later, one of her fundraising efforts—for the Giraffe OmniBed Carestation, an incubator that protects critically ill infants in the NICU—would be used for her own family in their time of need.

A Rady Baby
At 24 hours old, Grace had yet to be held by her mom when the Rady Children’s CHET (Children’s Hospital Emergency Transport) Team introduced themselves and told her that Grace was now “a Rady baby.”

“They explained the transport process and had to earn my trust in just a few minutes,” she says. “And within those five minutes, I completely believed in them. They walk into the room with a warmth that’s hard to explain—you feel like they’re the only people in the world who understand your situation. The compassion, intelligence and respect they have really make you feel like they are the best people to care for your baby. I knew they were going to take amazing care of her.”

The CHET Team, which consisted of respiratory therapist Cindy Mroczka, BS, RRT-NPS, C-NPT, ALS, and a NICU nurse, brought baby Grace in to meet her mother, and then wheeled her away by ambulance from La Jolla to Rady Children’s.

“Cindy is really special to me,” Laura says. “She was the first person from Rady Children’s that I saw. She was the first person to let me hold my baby. She really supported Grace.

The support that began on Grace’s second day of life continued for the next 45 days she spent in the Rady Children’s NICU. While Laura recovered, her husband Rob never left Grace’s side. After three days, Laura was discharged and made her way over to Rady Children’s to spend the first month-and a-half of her daughter’s life in her private hospital room—surrounded by Cindy and a full team of NICU specialists that became an extension of their family.

“When I first walked into Grace’s room, I was completely overwhelmed by the number of machines and tubes keeping her alive. I knew they would have the best doctors and technology, but what blew me away was the staff that took care of her like she was their own,” Laura says.

“The nurse walked me through everything in Grace’s room and taught me how to be an active parent involved in my daughter’s care. She told me about the importance of kangarooing—holding the baby’s skin to my skin, even hooked up to machines—so we started doing that three times a day, every day. That became my life with Grace,” she continues. “Every parent remembers all the firsts with their baby. I got to have all those firsts; I was just in the hospital for them. Usually, you get to celebrate little moments with your family. When your baby is in the NICU, the Rady Children’s NICU staff becomes your family.”

Giving Thanks & Giving Back
The Sunday before Thanksgiving, the Mellos got news to give thanks for: Grace could go home— much to her mother’s surprise.

“I said, ‘You can’t send her home. She weighs 4 pounds!’” Laura says. “They told me, she’s not doing good, she’s doing great. And the next day, we packed up our tiny baby and said goodbye to our hospital family.”

Within three months, Grace was meeting all the growth milestones of babies her age who were not born premature. Now 9, she continues to give her parents something to be eternally thankful for.

“Looking at her now as an adventurous, kind, sometimes spicy 9-year-old kid, you’d never know she came into the world so tiny and so sick,” Laura says. “That’s all because of Rady Children’s.”

That’s something the Mello family will never forget—and something that inspires them to continue to nurture Laura’s childhood passion for philanthropy.

“It’s important for us to never forget that even though we are no longer living in the sad moments of the NICU, there are families going through all of that now,” she says. “We want to support Rady Children’s in whatever ways we can—from participating in walks to sharing Grace’s story to including the Hospital in our family’s estate plan— because we wouldn’t have a family if not for Rady Children’s. They’re part of our story and we plan to do everything we can to make sure every child gets the same amazing care that Grace did.”

Published in the Fall 2022 issue of Healthy Kids Magazine