Jill Leonard and Nir Malachy already are planning their son’s first birthday celebration in November, but not in the way most parents do.
The Bend couple intend to place a blue candle on Aviv Malachy’s birthday cake to honor the doctor who saved his life after a bout with newborn pneumonia and collapsed lungs. Blue is the color of scrubs worn by Dr. Aryan Azimi-Zonooz and the rest of the neonatal intensive care team at St. Charles Bend, where Aviv stayed for 10 days.
“Dr. Azimi’s talked about often in our house as a hero, basically,” Leonard said.
Azimi-Zonooz is being recognized nationally with the NICU Heroes Award from the Austin, Texas, nonprofit Hand to Hold and sponsor Mead Johnson, which will result in a $2,500 donation to the Ronald McDonald House of Central Oregon. Leonard said nominating Azimi-Zonooz was the least she could do after the kindness he showed her family while also throwing himself into her son’s care.
Aviv was born full term at a little over 37 weeks and weighing 7.8 pounds. About an hour later, he began having trouble breathing. He was transferred to the NICU, and his health was touch-and-go for three days. Azimi-Zonooz never left the hospital or stopped working on how to help Aviv, Leonard said in her nomination.
“I can’t recall the exact moment I met Dr. Azimi, but I remember he was clean-shaven, and then I watched his facial hair become stubbly and thicken as he watched over and cared for Aviv in the days to come,” she wrote.
During that time, Leonard and Malachy had a multitude of questions, but Azimi-Zonooz answered each one as though it were the first, Leonard said. Malachy said when he visited the NICU, he never had to ask the doctor for an update because Azimi-Zonooz came right up to him and shared the latest chest X-rays and other information.
“He made us feel like our son was his only patient,” Malachy said.
Hand to Hold founder Kelli Kelley said Azimi-Zonooz was chosen for the award because of his compassion toward the parents. “Sometimes it’s really difficult for doctors to connect emotionally because they see so many babies, and not all outcomes are positive,” Kelley said.
Hand to Hold trains parents who’ve been through a NICU experience as volunteer mentors to support parents as they deal with the follow-up care for a premature baby. Kelley said she hopes the award, which is in its third year, inspires better care at hospitals across the country.
Azimi-Zonooz, 49, has been a neonatologist for 15 years. He joined St. Charles Health System two and a half years ago after working at Oregon Health & Science University. Handling the stress of newborn intensive care becomes easier with experience, he said. “At some point, as they say, somebody has to keep calm.”
Most of the babies he treats are born premature, and the NICU team has a chance to prepare the parents for what comes next. That’s not the case with babies like Aviv, whose parents expected to take him home quickly. “The parents are shell-shocked,” he said. “You try to absorb that stress.”
Aviv was not the sickest baby Azimi-Zonooz has ever treated, and he responded to the barrage of treatments — a special ventillator, sedation and antibiotics — very well, he said. But Azimi-Zonooz also did not take any chances, sleeping at the hospital for two nights until the baby was stable. “Babies like him can turn on you in a matter of minutes,” he said.
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