CEDAR GROVE, NJ - Giselle Mongiello and her husband Joe were terrified when Mongiello went into labor with their twin girls 12 weeks early in July 2015. After a scary and nerve-wracking 78 days in the Hackensack University Medical Center NICU, twin girls Mia and Mikayla, now 3, survived and are thriving today. Now, the Mongiello family is giving back and helping other families going through the same experience.

From the very beginning, Mongiello's pregnancy had its complications; her umbilical cord had only one artery and one vein, while normally there are two arteries and one vein. At around 21 weeks, the doctors determined Mongiello had a short cervix and she was put on bed rest for seven weeks, leading to her water breaking early in the morning on July 26, 2015 and her being rushed to the hospital.

"I didn’t know it at the time, but I was already six centimeters dilated. They checked for both heartbeats and found one immediately, but struggled finding the second one. They ended up finding it," Mongiello said. "When the resident doctor came to do the pre-exam to see what had happened, Mia was already on the way out and her little hand grabbed the doctor's hand. The room became an episode of ‘ER’ and I was rushed into surgery with the resident doctor still on my stretcher basically pushing Mia back inside."

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Once the girls were born, they were intubated immediately because they could not breathe on their own. Although Mongiello said her husband was terrified, she tried to remain calm and think positively.

"Driving to the hospital, my husband was angry. He was yelling and just mad that this was happening to us. I was being the opposite and just naive thinking to myself no they are fine, it will be fine; they will give me something to keep them in me," Mongiello said. "When reality hit at the hospital I was petrified, but not for my girls. Something inside of me knew they would be ok. I was scared for myself and my husband; I was scared I wasn’t going to make it and I would be leaving my husband alone with two babies and I wouldn’t get to see them or raise them."

It was the relationships the couple built with the staff that helped them remain positive during those 78 days in the NICU. Mongiello would spend all day at the hospital and made sure to never search for information on the Internet. Instead, she would ask doctors and nurses for the answers to her questions. Eating dinner together every day -- whether at home or at a restaurant -- is also what helped keep the Mongiellos sane during that time in the NICU.

Mongiello remains close to friends she met in the NICU, including one friend who had identical twin daughters and another who had a baby boy, and said she goes to them first with questions. When a neonatologist at the hospital approached them about volunteering, Mongiello was excited to take on the opportunity and loved the idea of families in the NICU having someone with experience to talk to. That is how the peer-to-peer program was established.

"When we started volunteering in the NICU, we knew that our number one priority was talking to other families. We went through the hospital's volunteer program and then we watched training videos. We started spreading the word to nurses and doctors if they knew any families that needed to talk. We also held a few meet and greets and talked with some families then," Mongiello said. "It’s been extremely positive. Families love hearing our story and find comfort knowing someone understands their feelings and emotions."

Now Mongiello said they get referrals, but also go to the NICU as often to possible and do rounds, talking to anyone who wants to talk. 

To continue their volunteer efforts and raise money for the NICU, the Mongiellos planned the first ever NICUSTRONG walk after attending a conference in October 2017 and learning about the idea. Mongiello proposed the idea to the hospital after speaking to several family advisors at other hospitals and the hospital jumped on board to support the Mongiellos.

The Mongiellos have a goal of $50,000, but are striving to raise more. They are hoping families that have had NICU experience or are friends of someone who has had NICU experience will participate in the walk in Van Saun Park in Paramus on September 16. There will be snacks and entertainment for those in attendance. The name, Mongiello said, is a representation of her family and her daughters.

"The name came about because we always called the girls NICU strong," Mongiello said. "We said they have been through so much and were the strongest babies we knew and it made us stronger too. We were NICU Strong."

Strong is the right word for Mia and Mikayla. The girls were cleared by a developmental specialist at 18 months old and are now on track for their age. They go to school twice a week, Mongiello said, and are reciting the alphabet and numbers, and they absolutely love learning.

Although similar in their interests, which include swimming, gymnastics and going to the park, Mia and Mikayla have very different personalities.

"Mia is tough and strong and caring. She doesn’t like to see other kids cry; she will stare at them and seems worried. I always tell her to go check on them trying to teach her it’s okay to care for others. She’s very genuine," Mongiello said. "Mikayla is sensitive. She’s strong and tough but she doesn’t like to be the first to do things. She makes Mia do everything first and then when she sees her having fun she does it. She’s caring and very intuitive; she knows if someone is sad or happy. She’s very smart and witty."

Now that both of her girls are doing amazing, Mongiello wants to help the families who are dealing with the same scary situation. To help the Mongiellos in their fundraising goals or to find out more about the NICUSTRONG walk, visit http://www.hackensackumcfoundation.org/site/TR?fr_id=1601&pg=entry.

TAPinto Verona/Cedar Grove  is an online newspaper serving the Townships of Verona and Cedar Grove. TAPinto Verona/Cedar Grove is accredited by the New Jersey Press Association, and is a locally owned news organization serving the community.

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