Taylor Kochmit couldn't be more grateful for the nurses that have helped care for her newborn son, Milo, who has spent every day since his birth in a neonatal intensive care unit.
Shortly after the Chicago-area mom gave birth to her baby boy in mid-October, her son was transferred to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital's NICU in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Those first couple of hours it was like, 'Okay, this is happening. Okay, let's get him in the ambulance. Okay, he's in the ambulance now.' And then all of a sudden my husband is in the car following them, to make sure he gets set up at the new hospital, and I'm sitting there by myself," Kochmit recalls to PEOPLE. "And because of COVID, they wouldn't let anyone come be with me, so I was there by myself. They said if someone else came in then John, my husband, couldn't come back."
"So I had to decide who my person was going to be going forward and so I said, obviously, I wanted my husband to be able to come back in," she adds. "So I sat there by myself and just… It's hard, you have no idea what's going on."
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Milo was born with complications at 38 weeks, including a tracheoesophageal fistula (TEF), a rare condition where his esophagus and trachea didn't develop properly and are connected together. While the esophagus is the tube that connects the throat to the stomach, the trachea is the tube that connects the throat to the windpipe and lungs. When a child is born with these tubes connected, liquid can pass through the connection between the esophagus and trachea and end up in the baby's lungs.
Milo had his first surgery just three days after birth, on Oct. 19. Kochmit tells PEOPLE that the unimaginably difficult time was eased by the NICU nurses who took care of her and her newborn son.
"I think about what a NICU nurse is and it's so different from any other nurse that you've ever had. Like, a nurse in an adult ICU, they take care of you and that's it. Like medically they take care of you and they're there for emotional support as well, but a NICU nurse they're taking care of this baby, medically responsible for them, but they're also looking out for the parents," she says. "It's just such a unique job to have. They were incredible, making sure I was okay. John couldn't come in with me and I had just had a complicated birth, and I'm sitting there in a wheelchair, and they're looking out for Milo, but immediately looking out for me as well."
After Milo's first surgery, Kochmit recalls being unable to hold back her emotions, letting "little tears" stream down her face as she watched her sedated son wheeled back into her room following the operation.
"I just remember one of the nurses coming over and putting her hand on my shoulder and handing me tissues. And not even saying anything but just standing there with me and letting me have the opportunity to be not okay for a second," the mother of two recalls. "They're incredible. I will never be able to repay my gratitude for how incredible these nurses have been all the way."
Among the many negative side-effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are the added restrictions NICUs had to put in place to protect the babies, staff and families. Parents are only allowed to visit under tight windows and the units can no longer allow volunteers come help care for the babies.
"My husband and I are allowed three hours a day, split between the two of us," Kochmit, who is also mother to 4-year-old daughter Charlie, explains. "So if he was going to go I would only get an hour and a half. And then on the days that he couldn't make it, I was able to visit for three hours. We have to call 24 hours in advance to reserve a time slot, so there were times when our ideal time was taken by other parents, and we would try to have to figure something else out with our daughter and our schedules."
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During her limited time slot, Kochmit grew close to the nurses at Advocate Lutheran General's NICU and observed that the unit could benefit from added resources. Her desire to help resulted in an Amazon Wishlist that she curated with the nurses so that people could donate items to help out the staff.
"It all happened so accidental. Just us not being able to be there all the time… It's hard, like you're not the one changing the diapers, and feeding them, and holding them, and taking care of them," she says. "There was a lot of feeling of wanting to do something, like anything, and really not having a place to put it. And so I had mentioned that I had noticed some of these things that the babies used that were really helpful to assist the nurses."
After creating the wishlist, Kochmit shared it on Facebook. Within days, there were dozens of Amazon boxes on her porch.
"I was like, 'Oh wow.' I had just kind of posted and really didn't think much of it. I didn't even look to see if anything was being bought and then all of a sudden our porch was covered in boxes," Kochmit tells PEOPLE. "It was crazy."
One of the most coveted items by nurses on the list is the mamaRoo baby seat, which soothes babies as it simulates a rocking motion. The response has been overwhelming, and Kochmit has been able to donate the supplies across five Chicago-area hospitals.
"It is rare to find a parent like Taylor with the ability to look beyond their own child's immediate medical needs and think of the other babies around them. Taylor did just this. In witnessing some of the other NICU patients go without, she recognized the need for every baby to have comfort items along with their medical care," a rep for Advocate Lutheran tells PEOPLE.
"She communicated with staff to collect what is most needed, mobilized donors, and jumped to action the way only a mother can. Not only did she recruit donations, but thoughtfully organized, and arranged for an overwhelming amount of Wubbanub pacifiers, infant swings, tummy time mirrors, and more to be delivered to several local NICUs," the statement continues. "As any NICU parent can attest to, these items that bring your child a moment of comfort prove almost as important as the medical treatments they endure. Through Taylor's donation, we've been able to give our most fragile patients moments of joy, play, and calm that we otherwise wouldn't have been able to. We're forever grateful for and inspired by Taylor's immense generosity."
Kochmit hopes to eventually expand the wishlist into a foundation to continue supporting the NICU nurses and staff, whom she maintains deserve all the praise.
"We had four nurses at Lutheran General, Chrissy, Sam, Angie, and Jessica, and they are incredible. They advocated for him when we couldn't be there," she says. "We were just so lucky to have these incredible nurses taking care of him, that kind of became like his other moms when I couldn't be there."
Kochmit adds, "We are so thankful, we love them so much, and we really hope to keep doing this wishlist and expand in the future. And to any NICU mom that's sitting in the NICU right now, you're not alone. Hang in there, and just lean on the nurses because they're incredible."
Anyone who would like to donate an item can find Kochmit's wishlist here.
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