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Family with 2 healthy NICU graduates has 'so many reasons to be grateful' on Thanksgiving

November 23, 2021


Jeff and Jessica Toner with their two daughters, Penelope and Allison. Both girls started out life in the WellSpan York Hospital neonatal intensive care unit.

Jeff and Jessica Toner with their two daughters, Penelope and Allison. Both girls started out life in the WellSpan York Hospital neonatal intensive care unit.

The Toners will eat two turkey dinners this Thanksgiving, with the two sides of their family.

The Toners will be very grateful for their two healthy little girls, who started out life in the WellSpan York Hospital neonatal intensive care unit at two different times, as two tiny babies who weighed over 2 pounds.

“We will celebrate just the gift of being with each other,” said the girls’ mom, Jessica Toner, of Mt. Wolf. “We reflect on what we have survived, and that we have each other.”

Allison, now 3, and Penelope, now 7, both were born at 30 weeks and a few days (babies are considered full term at 37 weeks; an optimal delivery is at 39 or 40 weeks). Both girls were premature for different reasons. When she was pregnant with Penelope, Jessica developed preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure, and had to deliver her early due to liver problems she developed. When she was pregnant with Allison, Jessica’s had a placental abruption, an emergency complication that requires an early delivery.

Starting their babies’ lives out in the NICU was not the way Jessica and her husband, Jeff, anticipated life would begin with either of their children. But Jessica said she is grateful for what happened in the unit.

“Between the babies’ care and my care, it was absolutely phenomenal,” she said.

WellSpan York Hospital offers a Level III NICU, a 44-bed unit, providing comprehensive medical services for premature and critically ill newborns with conditions such as low birth weight, respiratory problems, infections, and other problems. WellSpan also offers a Level III-A NICU at WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital and a Level II NICU at WellSpan Chambersburg Hospital.

Both the Toners’ daughters needed treatment for underdeveloped lungs, intravenous lines for feeding, treatment for jaundice and other help. The family adjusted to what seemed like at first a scary world of beeping monitors, alarms going off, and extremely tiny babies – Penelope weighed 2 pounds, 5 ounces at birth; Allison weighed 2 pounds, 11 ounces.

“Honestly we were in awe,” Jessica said. “Even though the babies are technically the NICU patients, the staff made a point to make sure we were OK too and all of our questions were always answered. I had some people go out of their way just to comfort me.”

“Our philosophy is ‘Our family caring for your family,’ ” said Dr. Michael Goodstein, a WellSpan neonatologist and NICU medical director. “Our team knows how to do the high-tech things, like inserting an intravenous line that is as thin as a strand of dental floss into a tiny baby’s hand or providing their premature lungs with life-saving medication and breathing support. And they also know the importance of high-touch things, like finding a quiet moment to reassure families, listening to their hopes and fears, and encouraging them to take things one day at a time.”

After Penelope was born, Jessica was released from the hospital on Christmas Eve. When she and her husband returned to see their baby on Christmas Day, the NICU nurses had made a Christmas tree card with Penelope’s footprints as the star at the top of the tree.

The Toners got to know other families with babies in the NICU, and Jessica was an active member of a parent support group in the unit. They felt enveloped in care.

Carissa Sharp, a NICU nurse, ended up caring for both of the Toners’ daughters. She remains in contact with the family.

“The blessings of the Toner family go far beyond the NICU,” she said. “I was blessed to be a part of both Penelope and Allison's journey and develop a relationship with the Toners that has continued through the years. The Toners are the type of family that remind you why you love what you do. It has been amazing to watch these tiny warrior princesses grow into beautiful little girls who rock at life.”

Today, Penelope is a second-grader with a missing front tooth who dances and dressed up as a motorcyclist (in a red leather jacket!) for Halloween. Allison recently celebrated her third birthday with a Baby Shark cake and tried soccer this fall.

The Toners are thankful for their girls’ health and for their experiences in the NICU.

“A nurse told me even though this is not where you want to be, you’re where you are supposed to be,” Jessica remembers. “I grew so much from that whole experience. I am probably a completely different person because of it.

“There are a lot of times we sit and watch the girls and just feel very blessed to have two beautiful, healthy kids. Even though life threw them a curve ball, they are both strong and resilient. We have so many reasons to be grateful.”

For more information about WellSpan's neonatology services, go here.