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As reported by The Hartford Courant, December 13, 2009.

Photographer Records Early Moments

By Melissa Pionzio

FARMINGTON - They are the first professional portraits of these premature babies.

Delanie Santos of Southington lies snugly inside a warm incubator as her mother's hands gently cradle her tiny head and feet.

Arianna Almodovar of Willimanticis tucked into the crook of her father's muscular, tattooed arms.

Twins Natalie and William Oksanen of West Hartford lean together as they reconnect for the first time since birth, when they were placed in separate incubators.

The babies are among 12 infants featured in an exhibit recently installed at the UConn Health Center's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in Farmington. Supported by the March of Dimes Neonatal Family Support Program at the NICU, the exhibit was created to provide hope and encouragement to other families who are experiencing the premature birth of a child.

"We wanted to show encouragement, show that babies do grow, get better and become part of a family," said Jeanne Lattanzio, a family support specialist with the program. "We wanted to show how important the contact and encouragement of the families were."

The images in the exhibit were selected from those taken over a three-year period by West Hartford photographer Patty Swanson, who returned to the hospital's NICU a little more than a decade after her own twins were born there, to offer free photography sessions and images to the families of premature babies. Swanson, who has photographed 132 babies and their families, says the work has been a true labor of love.

"I read an article that was in People magazine about a woman who was photographing a terminally ill baby. ... It was so inspiring," Swanson said. "She recognized the importance of having a photograph of the child... It sounds morbid, but when it's your child, you want to have a physical photograph as a memory instead of just a memory."

All the babies Swanson has photographed at the hospital have gone home with their families, Swanson said. Through Lattanzio, interested parents schedule an appointment with Swanson, and the photo session is held right in the NICU. Swanson then posts the images for the families to review on a private website and compiles the 25 they select in a keepsake photo album. Overall, Swanson has taken more than 11,000 pictures, 10 of which are in the exhibit.

"When I saw them hanging there, I was overcome with emotion and what it means to the families, " Swanson said of the permanent exhibit on a long, curved wall just inside the NICU. "And what it would have meant to us if something like this were offered when we were there."

Swanson's son, Shane, and daughter, Molly, who arrived 10 weeks earlier than she and husband, Ken, expected in 1995, are now healthy teenagers. But unlike the babies she photographs at the NICU, Swanson didn't capture much of her children's first few weeks with her camera.

"I wish I had more of those pictures, now that I did the exhibit, because it's their history, it shows what they went through," said Swanson, who operates Swanson Photography from her West Hartford home. "When you are here in the NICU, you are living and breathing the experience. You always want to be here. You feel so helpless because you can't take them home, so you want to be with them and hold them and feed them."

It is those special moments that Swanson attempts to capture in her pictures the parents' emotion as they hold their tiny child, or the simple act of a baby in slumber. They are beautiful photos, even with the wires and intravenous tubing often connected to the babies' fragile bodies.

"It's very meaningful for families to keep this record of the baby. ... You think something like that you are never going to forget, but so many things happen day to day, that you aren't always able to capture it," said Lattanzio, who worked at the hospital as a prenatal nurse for 35 years and served as director of nursing there. "These pictures capture the time the babies spent in the NICU; that time is very special."

Southington residents Amie Drechsler and Michael Santos spent three long months in the NICU after their baby Delanie arrived 26 weeks early, weighing 2 pounds and 1 ounce.

"She's 11 pounds now, she's doing great," Drechsler said of Delanie, now 5 months old. "It was a blessing to be able to have Patty come in; she takes the pictures right in the unit. It's a nice memento to have. You forget how little your baby was at the time."

Drechsler visited the NICU twice a day during Delanie's stay and took plenty of photos, mostly with her cellphone. But to have her daughter's professionally taken photograph featured in Swanson's exhibit will give other families comfort, she said.

"I think that it's wonderful. It shows parents that are coming in what to expect, what to look for and to know that a lot of people are going through this. It is a tough time, but they do make it through," Drechsler said. "I am grateful for all that they did for her there and that she is thriving and doing well, but I'm glad she's home now."

Swanson continues to offer her photography services and said she hopes more of her subjects will adorn the walls of the NICU, so they can provide a little extra hope to all the families who spend time there.

"As photographers, we have an obligation to tell stories and to give back," Swanson said. "It makes me feel so good when I leave here after photographing a family, I'm on cloud nine. I think about the families. They are so loving, such very special families and are so in love with this fragile baby."

The exhibit is not open to the public, but can be viewed at www.courant.com/nicubabies.

Information on Swanson and her work is available at www.pattyswanson.com.