When Rina Nguyen started working at Regional One Health earlier this year, it was a case of life coming full circle.

Rina is a graduate of our NICU, having been born here in 1992 weighing just over 3 pounds. Her parents were told she faced difficult odds, but she survived thanks to the skilled, compassionate care she received.

Now, she looks forward to using her education in health care administration to help improve care for all of our patients – including today’s fragile NICU babies.

August, 1992. A frightened young woman arrives at Regional One Health’s labor and delivery center. She and her husband are new to Memphis and don’t speak English well. They know their baby is coming too soon, just like an infant they lost in their native Vietnam.

January, 2020. Another young woman stands at the hospital’s doorstep. She too is nervous, but for very different reasons. She’s not here as a patient, but to begin her career as a health analyst. And in her case, Regional One Health already feels like home.

After all, she was born here, back in August of 1992.

Rina’s parents were terrified when Kim Hoa went into premature labor. Today, they are forever grateful for the expert care Rina received and the kindness they were shown as a family.

Rina Nguyen is well aware of the significance of her journey from a fragile preemie who spent seven weeks in the Regional One Health NICU to an employee in our Center for Information and Analytics, which uses data-driven analysis to improve patient care.

“Without Regional One Health, I would not be alive today,” Rina says. “When they offered me a job, it hit me that everything had come full circle.”

Rina’s dad, Thin, immigrated to the United States in 1991, and sponsored his wife, Kim Hoa, a year later. They were excited to start their family, but when Kim Hoa went into labor that August, she was only six and a half months along.

Rina entered the world weighing a little over 3 pounds and was whisked to the NICU. “My mom said the nurses and doctors took amazing care of me, and everyone was very helpful,” Rina said. “Even with the language barrier, they would educate her on how to hold me, how to feed me. One of the nurses spoke Vietnamese, and she helped them a lot.”

Her mom has told her lots of stories of those early days.

“One day a friend drove her and my dad to visit me, and when he came inside he took one look at me and said, ‘I’m not holding that baby – she’s too tiny!” Rina laughed.

Other stories are more harrowing. “The nurses showed them how to pinch me if I needed to start breathing again,” Rina said. “At one point, they told my mom, ‘We’ll do the best we can for your baby, but we are fighting against the odds.’”

But fight they did, and eventually Rina was able to go home. She grew up in Memphis, later joined by a brother. For years, she wanted to be a doctor, inspired by the physicians who cared for her as a baby.

Rina started her career at Regional One Health with a NICU tour from nurse manager Kelley Smith. Smith explained how the facility has changed since Rina was there – but how the genuine love nurses feel for the babies remains the same.

She excelled in school and earned a full-ride scholarship to University of Memphis, where she majored in biomedical engineering.

After graduation she lived near Knoxville and in Nashville before returning to her home and alma mater to get her master’s in health administration. Then, last September, she interviewed for an internship at Regional One Health.

“She completely blew us away,” said Jani Radhakrishnan, director of the Center for Information and Analytics. “I knew I had a full-time position opening up, and I told her I’d love to consider her for it. That’s when she told us about her time in the NICU, and that it had been her dream to return to this hospital. She teared up when she was offered the job.”

Jani was so moved by Rina’s story that she arranged a very special welcome: a tour of the NICU. Rina had not been back since leaving in her mother’s arms 28 years ago.

“I was very curious about it,” she said. “I wanted to see what an incubator looks like. I have a few pictures from when I was in the hospital, but I knew it would be very different now.”

“My mom said the nurses and doctors took amazing care of me, and everyone was very helpful,” Rina said. “Even with the language barrier, they would educate her on how to hold me, how to feed me..”

Kelley Smith, NICU nurse manager, was able to tell Rina just how different.

Smith started at the NICU shortly after Rina’s stay. She said today’s NICU usually has around 50 babies at a time, but when Rina was there, the population was nearly double that. Also, Rina’s stay today could be shorter, and would include services like physical and occupational therapy.

While the addition of new NICUs in the city and advances in medical care have clearly sparked a lot of changes at our Sheldon B. Korones Newborn Center, some things have stayed the same.

Using Rina’s photos, Smith found the location of her incubator and where her mom sat in a rocking chair to hold her. She even identified a nurse from Rina’s time who is still at the NICU.

Most of all, Smith said, the genuine caring Rina was shown back in 1992 remains a cornerstone today. “We love what we do,” she said. “Once you work in the NICU, you never want to leave.”

For Rina, the experience was emotional, not only because of the reminder of her own beginning, but the realization that other tiny souls were starting their journey inside that room.

“My family is grateful for being here at the right place at the right time for the right care,” Rina said. “I have that same kind of hope for these babies. Growing up and being in health care and knowing the odds of it, I’m amazed by the facility and the people who work there, because that’s what makes it possible.”

To support the lifesaving work of our NICU team, visit regionalonehealth.org/foundation.