A lot of parents walk out of the hospital with their baby for the first time when that baby is a day or two old, but for NICU babies like Cullen Potter, that first walk out of the ward is a lot further away, and is a much bigger deal when it eventually arrives.
After 160 days in the NICU at the University of South Alabama Children's and Women's Hospital, baby Cullen "graduated" from the NICU in attire fitting of such a momentous milestone: A tiny cap and gown.
"It was an overwhelming sense of joy. It didn't feel real. We were going to walk out with our baby after five long months. We can never say thank you enough to the nurses and doctors as staff at the hospital. They saved our baby," Cullen's mom, Molli Potter tells Motherly via email.
In the now viral video, Pomp and Circumstance is playing in the background as baby Cullen's primary care nurse, Jewel Barbour, carried him down the hospital corridor while other staff members congratulated the little guy and bid the Potter's farewell.
Millions of people have been touched by Cullen's NICU exit, but none more so than the people walking behind him, Molli Potter and her husband Robert.
"These tiny ones are fighters," says Molli, who has some advice for other NICU parents: "Take it one day at a time. Ask questions, be prepared for good days and bad but know one day it will be a distant memory."
The Potters were still reeling from the loss of their daughter, Ellie, who didn't make it past 15 weeks gestation, when they learned Cullen was going to come into the world way before his due date, at just 22 weeks.
"She is the reason we fought so hard to save Cullen. We weren't going to take no for an answer," Mollie tells Motherly, adding that her husband called 16 hospitals across three states to find one that had the neonatal services Cullen would need.
"Our local hospital flat out said they would not save him before 24 weeks and he had a 2% chance to live. I opted to transfer," Mollie wrote on Facebook, praising the work of the staff on the USA Children's and Women's NICU, who did all they could to get Cullen healthy.
When Cullen was born on March 14, he was three ounces shy of a pound and was no bigger than a can of soda. Over the next five months, the Potters travelled back and forth from their home in Florida to the hospital in Mobile to be with Cullen.
"They are AMAZING at what they do," Molli writes. "They believe in these small babies and give them the fighting chance they deserve."
And with his NICU graduation behind him, Cullen now gets to go home to the life he deserves, with his mom, dad and big brother, 7-year-old Kayden, by his side.
"Kayden has been such a good big brother. It was hard for him to understand at first. He couldn't see or touch his brother that he's wanted for so long," says Molli, who adds that Kayden is thrilled to finally be able to get his hands on Cullen.
The Potters hope that one day their little graduate will see the video and hear the stories of all the people who helped him and "know how many lives he's touched." The couple wants parents to know that this is hope for babies born early, even at 22 weeks, and that there's nothing wrong with seeking a second opinion or a new hospital if the first doesn't have the NICU services you need.
Baby Cullen has gone from less than a pound to weighing more than five, and he's got a lot more graduations in his future.
[Update, August 28, 2018: Added direct quotes from Molli Potter]
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