Many families are rethinking the way they’ll celebrate Halloween this year. With the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against traditional trick-or-treating.
But inside the Newborn/Infant Intensive Care Unit (N/IICU) at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the holiday has always looked a little different.
On Wednesday, CHOP debuted its annual photo series of costumed N/IICU newborns, a tradition meant to restore some normalcy to the lives of the families involved. The photo album, shared on social media, features little ones dressed up in outfits ranging from a “crazy cat lady” to a sleeping pig in a blanket to a tightly wrapped Subway hoagie.
“It’s incredibly emotionally scary here for a lot of the parents, and this allows them a moment of real world life, and it gives them some control,” says Chavis Patterson, director of psychosocial services for the division of neonatology at CHOP and member of the team that spearheads the costume tradition. “They get to choose the costume, touch their baby, be with their baby, and really feel like the baby is their child.”
CHOP’s N/IICU takes in babies from all over the world, ranging from a day old to six months. Many were born between five to 15 weeks early, some on breathing tubes fighting for their lives.
“Not being able to hold your newborn, it’s something you can never prepare for,” says Lakea Best of Bayonne, N.J., whose son, just shy of five months old, is being treated at CHOP for a severe lung disease. “This took our mind off the fact that we’ve been away from our family for the past two months, away from my 18-year-old son that we just put in college, and this gave us a little bit of joy that we needed.”
With a set of metallic gold boxing gloves draped around his neck, and a pair of silky black and gold shorts around his bottom, Best’s son, Creed Murat, was dressed as a fighting boxer. It’s a costume that matches him perfectly, and aligns with the legendary character — boxing champion Apollo Creed — that he was named after.
“My oldest son came up with the name, and of course we know the movie, but I looked up the name and it meant a ‘set of beliefs’ or a ‘faith,’" says Best. “Early in my pregnancy, they diagnosed me with a miscarriage and for four days we thought he was gone, but in a routine ultrasound they found he was still there, with a heart. So we kept the name.”
A fighter even before birth, Creed was delivered prematurely at 24 weeks, weighing in at one pound, four ounces. Today, he weighs five pounds, six ounces, and continues his fight at CHOP, where doctor’s say he’ll need to stay for at least another three or four months.
“It’s been a traumatic experience all around, but CHOP’s staff, medical team, and the resources available to us here have made this journey that much more bearable,” says Best, who notes that they used the photo of Baby Creed to officially announce his birth.
Naturally, the whole family loved it, as do dozens of people who’ve commented on the photo since it posted to CHOP’s Facebook.
“Gloves up Buddy! You got this!” posts one commenter.
“Creed we’re outside the ring praying and cheering you on,” writes another.
‘It’s OK to cry’
Each Halloween, CHOP invites some of the families at its N/IICU to bring in costumes for their newborns, and also provides outfits for those who want them. Photos are taken, this year by a professional photographer, and then posted to Facebook. Families who’ve been through the experience before often leave comments, sometimes sharing photos of their now healthy children.
» READ MORE: A day in the life of CHOP
“It’s OK to cry, but we also want to look at some of the wins, some of the goodness about all this craziness, and one thing is that these babies can make any costume look just so cute,” says Patterson.
“It’s also nice for the CHOP community to see where folks have been and where they are now, and when someone comments with a picture of Johnny at 4 years old, it shows a light at the end of the tunnel for these parents.”
Many of the costumes that CHOP purchases come from Build-a-Bear. CHOP cares for babies that weigh as little as one pound at birth. And, originally destined for teddy bears, the Build-a-Bear outfits are among the only ones small enough to fit the infants who wear them.
Creed’s little boxing shorts were hand sewn by his grandmother and strapped on with Velcro that opened mid-photo shoot as Creed let out a sneeze.
“We had to do a little Photoshopping,” says Best with a laugh. “And the attendee almost had a heart attack when she saw the photo because she thought they disconnected the breathing tube to take the picture. We had to assure her it was just some good editing.”
Over the years, little ones have been dressed as an Eagles player, characters from Thomas the Tank Engine and Monsters, Inc., and a vibrant green “sweet pea.” Occasionally the babies are too sick to be moved and so families lay their costumes on top.
The tradition remains a way to make the best of a holiday celebrated inside a hospital, says Patterson, and is really intended just to bring a smile during hard times.
It also stands as a reminder that you needn’t let a pandemic ruin your own Halloween.
“Halloween is what you make of it, and for these parents, they can’t bring their kids out so they’ve made their own special Halloween right here,” says Patterson. “And I’m hoping other families find ways to do that this year, too.”