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Meet Hunter Branigan, West Islip’s 3-Year-Old Superhero

September 4th, 2018

By the time they reach the age of 3, many little boys become fans of superheroes. But to his family, 3-year-old Hunter Branigan is a real-life superhero. A bundle of boundless energy and blond curls who loves to sing his ABC’s and learn about colors, shapes and numbers, Hunter has overcome tremendous odds just to survive.

Born more than three months early, weighing only one pound 12 ounces, Hunter was what is known as a micro-premie. His parents, Denise and Brian Branigan of West Islip, credit the team at Good Samaritan Hospital and its Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) with saving their miracle baby’s life.

Denise Branigan’s pregnancy was uneventful until things took a sharp and sudden turn. Just 22 weeks into her pregnancy, her water broke. She was rushed to Good Sam, where doctors told her she would have to remain on bedrest in order to give her baby as much additional time as possible to grow and develop. Denise and her husband were already busy raising a blended family of four children aged 12 – 18. The idea of spending four months in the hospital was daunting, but she knew that each day that brought her pregnancy closer to full term improved her baby’s odds of surviving.

Just a few weeks later, Denise developed a fever and her doctor, Jacqueline Ammirata, MD, decided to perform an emergency Cesarean section. At Good Sam, neonatologists, specialists in the care of critically ill and premature newborns, are on-site around the clock and are present in the delivery room during all high-risk births.

“There’s no time to waste because when premature babies are born, they often need help within seconds, not minutes” explained Prabhu Mehta, MD, Chief of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Good Sam.

Hunter required immediate help with breathing. Neonatologist Isaac Gyasi, MD, began caring for Hunter as he transported him from the delivery room to the NICU, which would become Hunter’s home for the next 104 days.

The staff warned the Branigans that Hunter’s journey would be a rollercoaster; some days they would see tremendous progress while others would be marked by setbacks. Their honesty prepared the family for the sometimes-terrifying struggles that lay ahead.

“He flatlined twice,” Denise recalled. “There were days we didn’t think he would come home. But he has defeated every obstacle that came his way.”

Over the next three months, Hunter faced a range of serious medical issues that are common in very premature infants. His lungs, brain, heart and eyes were all affected. A combination of technology, medicine and surgery, along with the skills and experience of the neonatologists and specialized neonatal intensive care nurses, helped Hunter overcome every setback.

“Babies that are born that small have very premature lungs,” explained Dr. Mehta. Doctors used surfactant, a medication that helps the lungs mature, together with various devices including a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine and a high frequency oscillator which vibrated air into his lungs. Other medications were used to stimulate his nervous system to encourage him to continuously breathe on his own.

Hunter also experienced a condition known as retinopathy of prematurity, an eye disorder common in premature infants that, if not successfully treated, can lead to detached retina and blindness. The Branigan family celebrated another win when Hunter responded to the first laser surgery performed by pediatric ophthalmologist Catherine Gerontis, MD, to treat the problem.

Throughout it all, Hunter was a fighter, overcoming serious issues that sometimes cause significant, permanent delays in premature babies. Hunter had a small bleed in his brain, and a hole in his heart, but somehow, both healed on their own.

“Everything that scared us every step of the way turned out positive. It was a miracle,” said Denise.

As a New York State-designated Level 3 NICU, Good Samaritan offers the highest level of care available to premature infants and babies born with medical issues. Its staff includes specialists in a variety of pediatric-focused subspecialties including surgery, ophthalmology, gastroenterology, cardiology, pulmonology, infectious diseases, neurology and nephrology. In addition, the hospital offers a range of supportive services such as nutrition, physical and occupational therapy, speech and hearing to help diagnose and provide early treatment of any medical issues or deficits related to prematurity.

Dr. Mehta helped start the hospital’s NICU 25 years ago. He has seen countless babies go through the unit since it opened.

“One of my babies who was born even earlier than Hunter just finished college,” he said. Periodically, the hospital holds a NICU reunion that reunites former patients, ranging in age from a few months through adulthood, with the doctors and nurses who cared for them. “It’s gratifying for the NICU physicians and nurses to see these kids in a social setting. They spend so much time here, we get attached to them.”

Denise and Brian formed a close connection with the NICU staff. Living near the hospital enabled them to visit Hunter daily. The staff encouraged Denise to participate in “kangaroo care,” which allows for preemies and moms to bond by experiencing skin-to-skin touch. The couple often helped with feedings. Together with Sr. Rosemarie from Pastoral Care, they frequently prayed for their son and the other patients and families in the unit.

By August 12, almost two-and-a-half months after he was born, Hunter reached six pounds, seven ounces, and was finally able to go home. He needed portable oxygen for a few months, but he quickly became part of his family’s busy lives, accompanying his siblings to after-school sports and other activities just as they accompanied him to his regular physical, occupational and speech therapy sessions.

The experience inspired his oldest sister, Kaitlyn, who started college this fall, to major in speech therapy.

Hunter will continue to be monitored and receive services to help him overcome any potential delays. But rather than worry about how long it will take him, or even if he will ever “catch up” with his peers, the Branigans are grateful for their precious child.

“People ask if I worry that he’ll be labeled as special needs,” Denise said. “The only label we have for him is he’s alive. As long as he remains healthy, we’re blessed.”

For more information on Maternity or Pediatric Services at Good Samaritan, call (631) 376-4444.

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