Cottage Children’s Hospital’s NICU turned 25 on Thursday, celebrating its history of care to more than 8,200 newborns.

The colorful handprints of those children line the corridors of the Children’s Hospital, which are made during annual reunions for neonatal intensive care unit patients.

On a cold Sunday morning — Dec. 20, 1987 — nurses and doctors turned on the lights and got the center running just in time for a 4-pound, 6-ounce patient.

“We were going to open the following day, and we got a call that there was going to be an infant who needs care,” said Dr. Steve Barkley, the medical director.

Mother Stephanie Ralston was grateful for her daughter to be the NICU’s first patient.

“I was so lucky that I could stop the labor and was able to deliver my child here,” said Ralston, who has been a registered nurse for Cottage Health System for 35 years. “They were able to open the unit a day early, and it was comforting to me to be in my own community and have my own support group. It was like coming home and having everybody taking care of me.”

Her daughter, Courtney, also now 25, stayed in the NICU for two weeks and has been healthy ever since.

Courtney was so small, “the premie clothing was just swimming on her,” Ralston said.

Someone suggested she buy doll’s clothes, so Courtney was dressed in Cabbage Patch doll clothing for a while — and even those were a little too big.

Barkley said about half the babies in the NICU are premature, and the other half usually suffer from some complications from delivery.

Elena Arroyo and Jorge Hoyos with daughter Sophia, who turned 4 days old on Thursday and is expected to leave Cottage Children's Hospital's NICU on Friday. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Elena Arroyo and Jorge Hoyos with daughter Sophia, who turned 4 days old on Thursday and is expected to leave Cottage Children’s Hospital’s NICU on Friday. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

“Really, the job is, you’re intervening in a family where it’s all gone horribly wrong; this is on no one’s plan,” Barkley said. “Our job is to put them back together.”

Barkley created Cottage’s neonatal intensive care unit with his partner, Dr. Barbara Donnelly, and they both work as neonatologists.

Before the NICU, babies who needed intensive care would be transported to Los Angeles and often wouldn’t survive the trip, Barkley said.

The first NICU had only eight spots, and demand quickly outgrew it. The current one, finished in 1996, has 22 beds and a whole staff of specialists.

It’s the only neonatal surgical facility between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, Barkley said.

“Almost every problem that a newborn suffers, we can take care of here,” he said.

Elena Arroyo and Jorge Hoyos welcomed little Sophia into the world this week and said everyone working in delivery and the NICU was wonderful. She was born at full term and weighed 9 pounds.

“All the nurses have been so good to my little girl,” said Arroyo, holding her 4-day-old daughter.

They plan to take Sophia home to her two brothers on Friday.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.