Make way for Choo-Choo Charlie

Charlie, who was in the NICU as an infant, hikes in the woods. “My first thought when we had Charlie so early was, ‘why is this happening?’” Kate Wittemann recalls. “But now I look back and realize that Charlie gave us something to focus on and work towards.”

Before their son Charlie arrived 15 weeks before his due date, Kate and her husband, Paul, were at a turning point in their lives. They were “struggling to find a purpose,” Kate remembers. Then Charlie was born on Valentine’s Day of 2015 via emergency caesarean section.

Life for the Wittemanns has been a whirlwind full of purpose ever since.

Born weighing just 1 pound, 15 ounces, Charlie earned the nickname “Choo-Choo Charlie” from his respiratory therapist because he progressed so rapidly, like a freight train chugging along the tracks. Breathing and crying on his own as a 25-week preemie, he has fascinated doctors and nurses since birth — they’re almost certain Charlie was waving as he was being delivered.

Road to recovery

Within Charlie’s first year of life, the follow-ups seemed endless. “You don’t realize the amount of doctor’s appointments these kids need to have,” Kate says. Living in Reading, Massachusetts at the time, the Wittemanns bounced between Winchester Hospital, Beth Israel Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital for appointments.

Charlie, who was in the NICU as an infant, with his parents at a road race.

Kate praises the well-coordinated care between the different Boston Children’s affiliate hospitals, “I love that when I go to Winchester Hospital, everything’s there because it’s part of the Boston Children’s network. They know his history.” Living hundreds of miles from their closest family, the Wittemanns turned to Charlie’s doctors, psychologists and therapists for support. “It’s really been a wonderful experience,” says Kate. “I’ve never left Boston Children’s feeling disenchanted. Every time I’ve gone, I’ve felt like he was getting competent, complete care.”

NICU GrADs

Dr. Jane Stewart has been integral to Charlie’s development, helping the Wittemanns every step of the way to make sure he hits his milestones at a good pace. Kate first met Stewart when she was on rotation in Beth Israel Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), when Charlie was just a month and a half old. “From the moment I met Dr. Stewart, she oozed confidence. When you sit in a room with her you legitimately feel the brainpower,” she says. “This woman has it together.”

Charlie, who was born prematurely, receives his graduation certificate from his doctor.
Charlie receives his graduation certificate from Stewart.

Stewart recommended Charlie participate in NICU GrADs, Boston Children’s infant follow-up program. NICU GrADs provides ongoing medical and developmental evaluation and support for very premature babies. A team of specialists from around the hospital come together to help parents feel secure that no area of their child’s development is overlooked.

After months of working with NICU GrADS, Charlie was feeling stronger than ever. When Stewart handed him his graduation certificate on September 18, 2017, his parents were emotional, and so was Stewart: “I was a little teary eyed and extremely proud of the amazing little guy that he is and the family that has supported him. But then of course I was laughing because he is quite a character — full of mischief and with a big twinkle in his eye.”

New horizons ahead

The long journey has not been an easy one for the Wittemanns. Kate admits she still worries about Charlie’s health because he’s more susceptible to infection, but she doesn’t let this hold her son back. She and Paul are more than happy to watch Charlie roll around in the dirt with his friends and supply band aids when he skins his knees.

The Wittemanns choose not to focus on their family’s stressful past but on the love and gratitude they have today — for each other and for their super smart and kind 3-year-old. “Charlie is my hero,” says Paul. “He had to want it from day one. We are deeply appreciative every day of how far he is come and are nervous, excited and proud.”

“It’s like anything in life … we needed to move past this in order to continue to grow,” says Kate. “I don’t continually label Charlie as a ‘NICU warrior’ — he’s not. He’s a big boy who constantly reminds us to stop and smell the roses.”

Learn more about the NICU GrADS Program.