MADISON, Wis. -

Nineteen years ago, Alex Sheil’s life depended on the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Meriter Hospital. Born at just 29 weeks, Sheil weighed only 2 pounds 12 ounces. He spent seven weeks in the NICU before he could go home.

Every year on his birthday, Sheil has come back to thank the NICU nurses and to give hope to the parents of children in the unit.

“I just want to show all the parents that are scared about their children that they can grow up and be just fine,” Sheil said.

When Sheil makes his birthday visits, it is he who brings gifts. He gives each family a small stuffed piglet with a note attached to it. The note carries a quote from a children’s book Sheil's mother read while he was in the NICU. It was an exchange between a rabbit and a tiny piglet.

The quote reads: “It is hard to be brave,” said Piglet, sniffing slightly, “when you’re a very small animal.” Rabbit, who had begun to write very busily, looked up and said, 'It is because you are a very small animal that you will be useful in the adventures before us.'”

The note is signed, “Happy Holidays, Love, Your Fellow Small Friend, Alex Sheil. Born 12-01-97, 2lb. 12 oz. Alex’s weight today – 142 lbs.”

“I hope that because we put his weight on every year, we put the date of his birth and how much he weighed at 2 pounds, 12 ounces, and we always put what he weighs now so they know that they do grow up,” said Susan Sheil, Alex’s mom.

The support Alex Sheil gives to patients at the Meriter Hospital NICU is important.

The NICU relies on donations from the community to help families during long stays in the hospital. Items needed include: books, both for children and parents and small gift cards, which can help families in need of art supplies such as markers, scrapbooks, paper, stickers or stencils.

Donations can be left at the front desk in Meriter's lobby at 202 S. Park St. in Madison.