TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — As a newborn, Destany Atkins' parents couldn't wait to get her out of Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
At 24 years old, Atkins hates when she has to leave at the end of the day.
The NICU was Atkins' home for the first 97 days of her life. Now the same place is where she earns her paycheck.
Her colleagues are the women who cared for her through surgeries and low birth weight and several brain bleeds. She can empathize with the infants in her care because at one point, she was just like them.
She's living proof that babies born under the darkest of circumstances can have a bright future.
"I've always wanted to be a nurse, since I was little," she said. "We came back to the NICU year after year to visit. We wanted to give parents in here a ray of hope."
Preterm birth — defined as birth after less than 37 weeks gestation — is the leading cause of infant death, and babies born premature are at greater risk of severe neurological and other health problems that can last a lifetime. Currently the state's preterm birth rate is at 13.7 percent.
Atkins and her twin sister Bethany were born at 28 weeks on December 3, 1989, after her mother went into labor at 26 weeks. Atkins weighed only 2.7 pounds at birth and required heart surgery that was only available in Gainesville at the time. Both she and her sister also had Grade 3 brain bleeds.
"Doctors weren't really expecting us to go to school," Atkins said.
But Atkins survived the first year of her life, dodging the state's infant mortality rate of about 6 percent. She started her nursing career at Archbold Hospital in Thomasville, Ga., after graduating from Southwest Georgia Technical College.
She made the switch to Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare's NICU on her 23rd birthday and has already developed a rapport with nurses who've watched her grow.
"I love them to pieces," Atkins said about her coworkers. "They're like my mother figures."
Atkins oversees four to five children per day. She provides the human contact the children need while still in an incubator, mixes formula, speaks to parents who are in need of comfort, assesses children and instructs parents on how to properly care for their babies after they leave the NICU.
Kim Bloyd, a 35-year veteran in the NICU, was a nurse who helped take care of Atkins. Now she looks after her in a different way — while Atkins is on the job.
"(Atkins) told us all the way through that she wanted to be a NICU nurse when she grew up," Bloyd said.
Linda Frimmel, now director at the NICU, was also a nurse during Atkins' three months in intensive care. She said she immediately recognized Atkins' name when she was looking over applications for new NICU nurses.
"It's awesome," Frimmel said. "When I got her application in my email I called her on the phone and said, 'Is this the Destany that was in here as a baby? Is this the Destany that came back here every year on her birthday and said she wanted to be a nurse?' "
Atkins still deals with a few complications, despite a relatively healthy life after leaving the NICU. She's smaller in stature than most, barely eclipsing 5 feet. She requires glasses to help combat weak vision because of blood vessels that constrict her eyes.
Her story still inspires parents who are worried about their baby who is holding on to life in the NICU.
"A lot of times, if I see a parent struggle or if I know the doctors gave them the possibility of a not-so-good outcome I'll step in and say, 'You can get through this,' " Atkins said.
Though Atkins said she's still young in her nursing career, there isn't anything else she'd rather be doing.
"I would not go back to adult nursing," she said. "These babies are just too special. They each have their own story. They're all miracles in their own way."
Information from: Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, http://www.tdo.com