Two Tennessee teens — who once spent critical days together in a hospital NICU — enjoyed a fairytale ending when they attended a high school prom after staying in touch for 17 years.
“It just brings you joy,” Jaime Horton, neonatal intensive care unit nurse manager at HCA Healthcare’s TriStar Centennial Medical Center in Nashville, told Fox News Digital.
“There’s not always a happy ending in the NICU,” Horton added.
“These moments are why we do what we do. Our goal is to give these families that outcome. When we can succeed at that and see the babies just thriving and running around and jumping in bounce houses and going to prom together, it’s why you do what you do.”
Lorrie Long, mother of Leighton Long (both seen on right) and Tatum Kelly (on left) is held by her mother Laura Kelly as they pose for a photograph near Christmastime. The children spent time in a NICU in Nashville, Tennessee, at the same time. (Lorrie Long)
Horton, who has been with the hospital for 23 years, was a bedside nurse at that time and remembers caring for Tatum Kelly, she said.
“She was just a super sick little girl,” Horton said. “She was really tiny for her age, a little over a pound, and her mom was still pretty sick. So I met Jeremy, Tatum’s dad, and I took care of Tatum that day. I know that she kept me very busy. She was definitely one of the sicker ones.”
Tatum Kelly’s mother, Laura Kelly, said she had experienced complications with her pregnancy — and as a result, little Tatum was born 16 weeks early.
Tatum Kelly, 17 of Pulaski, Tennessee, and Leighton Long, 17, of Knoxville, Tennessee, first met when they were at Tristar Centennial’s NICU in August 2005. Long was born at 28 weeks, weighing 2 pounds, 10 ounces — while Kelly was born at 24 weeks and weighed 1 pound, seven ounces. (Lorrie Long)
Tatum Kelly was on a ventilator for a week and then she turned a corner, her mom remembered.
Just two beds down in the NICU, Leighton Long was fighting his own battle, as was his mother, Lorrie, who also had pregnancy complications. Her baby arrived 12 weeks early.
“I think for a lot of us as mothers, you grow up and think about being a mom and what that’s going to be like and what you’re going to name your babies,” she noted.
“And you never picture this — you never picture having a baby and it being rushed away from you to another unit. And then it’s hooked up to monitors and all these noises and sounds going on. It is definitely extremely traumatic for these parents that come through here.”
Long said she can remember the first time she saw her newborn baby. She was brought to tears.
“Lorrie was one of the first people I met in the NICU,” said Laura Kelly. “I can’t remember if we were handwashing or if it was just because they were two beds down, but we just formed that connection. We both are very spiritual. We both have a very strong faith in God and I guess God just kind of placed us together. He knew we needed each other in that moment.”
Long said she believes God brought her and Kelly to one another so that they could comfort each other — especially during their day-long NICU visits over two months.
Leighton Long and Tatum Kelly, both now 17, recreate a sweet photo from when they were toddlers. The pair have remained friends since sharing a room in the NICU together as infants back in 2005. (Lorrie Long)
“We gave each other gifts, we prayed a lot together and, you know, we shared a lot of ups and downs together,” Long said.
Lorrie Long said she believes God brought her together with fellow mom Laura Kelly together so they each could be a source of comfort to the other while their children were in the NICU. (Lorrie Long)
“They get to talk to each other, and they’ll share how much weight their baby’s gained and really support each other through something that only someone who’s been through it can understand,” she explained.
After two months, Leighton was weighing in at six pounds and was strong enough to go home. But Long said leaving the hospital was bittersweet.
As tiny babies, Tatum Kelly (left) and Leighton Long (right) were in the same NICU in Nashville. Their families may have started off as strangers — but now the Kellys and the Longs have been friends for 17 years and counting. (Lorrie Long)
If either family was traveling near the other’s home, they made time for a visit at least once or twice a year, Kelly said.
“I think my first memories are from around the age of five of hanging out with him,” Tatum Kelly said. “I remember visiting their house and they lived right next to a river or lake with ducks and we would go feed the ducks.”
Leighton Long said he still has a stuffed camel he got during an outing to the Knoxville Zoo with his pal. While their mothers started the friendship, as the two children grew older, they stayed in touch on their own — even though everyone’s lives had become busy and they didn’t get together as often.
And they went in style.
Leighton Long showed up in a limo, dressed to the nines while Tatum Kelly wore a full-length blue gown with a crystal-studded belt.
She agreed to be his “support system” but did not commit to jumping, she said.
Supporting each other is one thing these families said they have learned is most important in life.
Lorrie Long said she knows her family has made friends for life.
Laura Kelly and her daughter Tatum Kelly (both left), stand beside Leighton Long and his mom, Lorrie Long, at the high school prom. (Lorrie Long)
“Laura and Jeremy and their family really were a blessing during such a hard time and it just felt like we weren’t alone,” Lorrie Long said.
“We know we’re not alone because we have God as our refuge and strength and a very present help in trouble. But to have a friend that’s going through the same thing, who brings you so much comfort during such a difficult time” — that’s what’s been so special, she suggested.