Finding and Sharing Hope
A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT ORIGINATING AT SAINT JOHN’S CELEBRATES WORLD PREMATURITY DAY AND MORE.
BY VICTORIA CLAYTON / PHOTOGRAPHED BY MONICA OROZCO
A love letter can come in many forms. Jean Paulo Lasmar, a director-producer and photographer, composed his love letter in the form of a public service announcement to raise awareness for the 380,000 premature babies born in the U.S. each year—including a very special birth about five years ago at Providence Saint John’s Health Center. Lasmar and wife Silvia, who moved in 2012 to Southern California from Brazil, had their son, Gabriel, unexpectedly early at Saint John’s in December 2015. The experience was a wild ride with—thankfully—a blessed ending. Silvia, who was pregnant with twins, says the pregnancy began normally. The couple moved from Downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica to be closer to Saint John’s only because they knew having twins made the pregnancy high-risk. Around the six-month mark, however, there was trouble. “There’s no real reason it happened, but we lost our daughter, and I was hospitalized,” explains Silvia. Gabriel had to be delivered soon after. At under 4 pounds, Gabriel was the size of Jean Paulo’s hand. He battled pneumothorax, a common but serious respiratory condition for premature babies, and clung to life in Saint John’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit—and he’d stay for two months.
“We saw all these healthy, vibrant children, and just seeing that gave us hope when we needed it most.”
At Saint John’s, a highly skilled NICU health care team devoted themselves to fastidious care for Gabriel. For this, the Lasmars are filled with immense gratitude. But they admit that there were dark days. Like any new parents navigating an uncertain outcome, they were terrified at times and felt helpless. “I never dreamed I’d leave the hospital as a new mom without taking my baby home. It was horrible,” says Silvia. Recovering, she dedicated herself to pumping breast milk eight times a day so her supply would sustain the baby once he was strong enough to breastfeed. She stationed herself at baby Gabe’s side all day, every day,except for a two-week period when she contracted a cold and was forced to stay away. Jean Paulo, who had just completed an MFA degree at USC’s School for Cinematic Arts, did the same. But he also did what he was trained to do: He grabbed his camera and documented the family’s emotional roller coaster. “I knew all along I wanted to do this for my child. I wanted to give him the gift of documenting his life,” says Jean Paulo. “But of course, I didn’t know we were in for this kind of story.” Naturally, Dad didn’t capture everything, because when in emergency mode all he could do was hold Silvia’s hand. But he got plenty. “Gabriel is very lucky. His father takes beautiful pictures,” says Silvia. Many parents just want to forget the drama of a difficult birth. Not the Lasmars. Years later—Gabriel is now a 5-year-old scooter-riding, Lego-building, bilingual wonder—Jean Paulo kept thinking about those dark days when the couple felt so scared. He recalled the fear when the doctors had to intubate tiny Gabriel to be placed on a ventilator. He pondered how, during COVID-19, so many people were sharing a type of fear and uncertainty similar to what the Lasmars had felt.
Working with his friend Henrique Tanji, a music composer, Jean Paulo took his family’s real-life experience and created a video project to offer hope to the world. The result was ultimately called Breathe: Gabriel’s Story, a video with original music written by Tanji and Jean Paulo. “When we were in the hospital and having the most fear, a nurse pulled Silvia and me aside and said, ‘You need to look at this,’” explains Jean Paulo. The nurse handed them an album. The book contained photos of children as they were in the NICU—many with far worse conditions than Gabriel—and then as they looked months and even many years later. “We saw all these healthy, vibrant children, and just seeing that gave us hope when we needed it most,” says Silvia. That’s exactly what the filmmaking team hoped their project could do.
Eventually Jean Paulo and Tanji showed Gabriel’s story to Wid Souza, VP associate creative director at New York advertising agency Area 23, who connected them with the March of Dimes, a nonprofit that works to improve the health of babies and moms. Gabriel’s story soon became a major television campaign to raise awareness for World Prematurity Day, which takes place each November 17. The Lasmar family also gifted Saint John’s the use of Breathe: Gabriel’s Story to raise awareness and celebrate the care they received at Saint John’s NICU. Nurse Pari Ghaffari says that the generosity of the Lasmar family is just one more example of the community she has admired over her 38 years of working at Saint John’s. Ghaffari, who was the very first nurse trained to work in the NICU when the hospital launched the program in the 1990s, says the reason Saint John’s exceeds expectations is often because of people like the Lasmars. “We have donors who truly want to make a difference,” says Ghaffari.
These NICU supporters, she says, not only want to make sure the world knows about preemies and what can be done to care for them, but they also often make sure Saint John’s has the latest technology. Because of generous donations, for example, Saint John’s was one of the first area NICUs to have Giraffe Incubator Care stations, state-of-the-art incubators that make it easier and safer for health care providers and parents to connect with and care for preemies. Other gifts have included advanced mobile X-ray units that give immediate images for catheter placement, baby cams so parents can observe their baby 24/7 from anywhere via a secure website, and much more. Volunteers and donations also provide for warm touches like beautiful hand-drawn placards with the newborn’s name and hand-knit caps for each preemie.
“Most recently, philanthropy has made it possible for us to completely remodel our waiting room so it’s even more sibling-friendly,” says Ghaffari. “Now we’re just waiting for the day when COVID-19 protocols will allow us to use it more.” NICU gratitude doesn’t surprise Nate Mabry, RN, former executive director of Surgical Services and Women’s Health at Saint John’s. “I think people really want to support the NICU and what they’re doing. I have never seen more dedicated health care workers,” says Mabry, whose own twins also spent some time in the NICU. “These are nurses, technicians and doctors who take their jobs so seriously. They are really there giving everything they got to some of our most vulnerable patients.” Jean Paulo says the decision to give back “with an open heart and arms wide” was an easy one. “Before our experiences with Saint John’s, I had always thought of hospitals as cold places,” he says. “But at Saint John’s we felt something more, something deeply emotional and compassionate coming out of everyone. And at times that was the only thing holding us together.”
Silvia says the health care team, but especially the nurses, taught her no less than how to be a mother. To the Lasmars, telling their story was intricately tied with telling the Saint John’s story. “It feels full circle. Like we came back to where it all began,” says Jean Paulo. Besides, there was a perfect arc. “From coming into the hospital so fearful to walking out of the hospital with our baby and saying, ‘We can do this. This is the best day of our lives.’ That’s transformation. That’s hope.” And, for sure, that’s love.