‘It just brings you joy’

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It was a NICU meet-cute.

Tennessee teenagers Tatum Kelly and Leighton Long met as infants in a hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit 17 years ago — and they now decided to go to prom together.

“It just brings you joy,” Jaime Horton, NICU manager at HCA Healthcare’s TriStar Centennial Medical Center, told Fox News Digital. “There’s not always a happy ending in the NICU.”

And the now-lifelong friends’ trip to the prom was a tough one.

Both children were under the medical team’s care at HCA Healthcare’s TriStar Centennial Medical Center in August 2005.

Leighton was born on Aug. 22, 2005, at 28 weeks, weighing 2 pounds 10 ounces, while Tatum was born just days later on Aug. 28, 2005, at 24 weeks and weighing 1 pound 7 ounces.

Horton was a bedside nurse at the hospital and remembered caring for Tatum.

“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.”

Leighton Long and Tatum Kelly
Tatum was born on Aug. 28, 2005, and Leighton was born on Aug. 22, 2005.
Lorrie Long

Tatum’s mother, Laura Kelly, experienced complications with her pregnancy, resulting in her daughter being born 16 weeks early and living on a ventilator.

Meanwhile, mother Lorrie Long faced her own obstacles giving birth to her son Leighton 12 weeks early.

“When I found out I was expecting Leighton, you can imagine the overwhelming joy. But I was just really sick. And I was so concerned about them taking him early and that he wasn’t going to make it,” Long admitted.

Lorrie Long, mother of Leighton Long (both seen on right) and Tatum Kelly (on left) is held by her mother Laura Kelly
Lorrie Long, the mother of Leighton Long, is shown with Tatum Kelly, who is held by her mother, Laura Kelly.
Lorrie Long

The NICU had an open concept that allowed parents to bond and support one another during troubling times.

“Lorrie was one of the first people I met in the NICU,” said Laura. “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.”

The Long and Kelly families found comfort in each other while their babies fought for their lives.

“It might be a rough day one day with your baby, so you rely on each other. And she gave me so much hope because we were going through the same thing,” Lorrie said.

Both mothers endured a difficult pregnancy which caused their children to be born early.
Lorrie Long

The families developed a close bond during their time in the hospital and continued that connection when their children were discharged.
Lorrie Long

The children celebrated holidays and birthdays with each other.
Lorrie Long

Once both children were discharged from the hospital, the families stayed in touch over the years, developing a close relationship.

“We met at holidays. We did our first birthday parties together. We went to Knoxville for Leighton’s and then they came here for ours,” Laura said.

Although the 17-year-olds lived nearly 200 miles apart from each other — Tatum in Pulaski, Tennessee, and Leighton in Knoxville — they also remained tight-knit.

Tatum invited her lifelong friend to her senior prom.
Lorrie Long

Both families were present to send their kids off to prom.
TriStar Centennial Medical Center

In April, Tatum invited Leighton, a high school junior, to attend her high school senior prom.

She did, however, shut down any suspicion of the two dating: “We’re just really good friends,” she told FOX Digital News.

“I asked him because I knew it was getting close, and I thought it would be fun to bring him because we haven’t gotten to see each other much,” Tatum told “Good Morning America.”

The miracle NICU babies arrived at prom in a limousine, with Leighton dressed in a black suit while Tatum wore a shimmery blue gown with a diamond-studded belt.

“We had a lot of fun. He got to meet some of my friends and it was really cool,” Tatum recalled.

Both families remain grateful for the unexpected friendship that blossomed at HCA Healthcare’s TriStar Centennial Medical Center.

“It is such a beautiful thing when in the most horrible moment of your life God brings hope through somebody else,” gratified mom Laura said. 

Lorrie, meanwhile, gushed that it’s been special “to have a friend that’s going through the same thing, who brings you so much comfort during such a difficult time.”

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