The family of an AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center Neonatal Intensive Care Unit graduate marked his birthday milestone with a surprise for the care team today. See video of the surprise here.

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Matthew Stephens, of Egg Harbor Township, was born 13 weeks early on Memorial Day, May 29, 1999. He weighed two pounds, says his mother Sylvia Stephens. “He fit in the palm of my hand,” she says. “His head was at the tip of my finger and his foot rested on the palm of my hand.”

Matthew, Sylvia and her husband Martin Stephens Sr., their daughter, Mariah (also a NICU graduate) gave the care team a virtual hand — and hug — by delivering 21 pizzas to the hospital to celebrate Matthew’s 21st birthday. Martin Stephens Jr. joined them by FaceTime from his home in Florida.

The family used cards and balloons to safely thank the team from outside the hospital.

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia neonatologists, part of CHOP Newborn and Pediatric Care at AtlantiCare, and nurses waved to the family from inside the campus. Some of the nurses had cared for both Matthew and Mariah.

The team, thrilled and touched by the surprise, quickly made a “Happy Birthday” sign and held it up to the window. One of the nurses held her hands in the shape of a heart. The family shared a video thank-you message with the team, who in turn sent a video birthday greeting to Matthew with thanks to his family.

“I hope Matthew’s story inspires families — especially mothers — to know that there is hope. I originally took giving birth for granted. Never in a million years did I think I’d experience preeclampsia — and have it twice.” Sylvia says Mariah weighed four pounds when she was born in 2003 at the Center for Childbirth. She spent a month in the NICU. She’ll celebrate her 17th birthday in June. Matthew’s NICU stay occurred when the unit was based in the ARMC Atlantic City Campus. “Martin was my only full-term baby,” says Sylvia.

“They were his first parents,” says Sylvia of the NICU Team. “We came back to thank the team for Matthew’s milestone birthdays — his first; his fifth, because he started kindergarten; and his 16th and 18th.” The family also attended NICU reunions the hospital has held. “Matthew made a special visit before he left home for college. As an educator, I knew the possible ramifications of his being premature,” says Sylvia, who is a teacher for the Pleasantville School District. “My teacher instincts went into play. The first thing I wanted to do was get support from special services. His going to college was a testament to what can happen by giving him all the opportunities he needed to survive, starting with the care he got at AtlantiCare.”

Matthew is a senior at Webber International University in Babson, Florida, where he is majoring in business.

Sylvia says she and her husband are grateful for the prenatal, labor and delivery care she received for all three of their children.

“I think it is important to instill in children the importance of giving back,” says Sylvia. “This includes thanking people and letting them know they are part of your lives. When I asked Matthew, ‘Would you rather go to the hospital or do something as a family,’ he chose to focus his day on the care team. He has a good heart.”

“Not only do these physicians, nurses and other staff help the patients, but they also help the families,” says Sylvia. “I never knew each day if Matthew was going to make it. With Matthew and Mariah they took care of our whole family. This visit is even more special and sentimental because of what the whole hospital team has been doing to care for COVID patients. I know they have sacrificed and it has been a lot on them. We knew 21 pizzas would go a long way to recognize the NICU, Labor and Delivery, and Post-Partum Teams, as well as others in the hospital.”

“We missed our usual hugs,” says Sylvia. “But we couldn’t miss thanking the team on this momentous occasion for our family. I was so in the moment. Watching my husband cry, I knew he felt it, too. Matthew said when he looked up and saw all of the nurses, it really made him feel so special.”

For more information about AtlantiCare, call the AtlantiCare Access Center at 1-888-569-1000; visit AtlantiCare.org; or find AtlantiCare on Facebook.

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