Our NICU Nurses, Our Teachers

September 17, 2012

Getting a bath from a favorite nurse

Our daughter Daphne had a fairly long NICU stay for a 27-weeker, which earned her the chance to spend time with dozens of nurses. In fact, every nurse in the large unit had the honor to care for her at least once.

The first few weeks were grueling. She was so sick and needed such intensive care, she monopolized the nurse’s shift  by misbehaving regularly and setting off every possible alarm.

It was clear that Daphne would be a long-term visitor. She was matched with two primary nurses, one for each shift. I cannot overstate how much these two women meant to our family.  For weeks, every time we arrived in the NICU, there was bad news. The primary nurses brought much needed stability and consistency in days of chaos. We breathed a sigh of relief whenever we heard that one of them was in charge of Daphne. Not because the other nurses were not good, but because the primaries were the right fit for us. Both were virtually unflappable, NICU veterans who had seen it all. Their energy was calm, steady, and comforting, to make up for our constant panic and pain. Both had a fantastic sense of humor and knew how to put us at ease: Baby self-extubated and sats just dropped to the 50’s? “Don’t worry, Mom, happens all the time.”

Primary nurses are, in a way, surrogates for parents. They get to know and love the baby during those long 12-hour shifts.  A good primary nurse is not only an advocate for your baby, but she will also empower you to be an advocate. Our primaries prodded the doctors when Daphne was doing well and ready for the next step, like spending time off CPAP or taking all bottles by mouth. They poured their loving care onto our little creature, with the goal of getting her home.

I could rely on the day shift primary to tell me exactly what was going on, good or bad. On a terrifying day when Daphne’s lungs filled with fluid and she had one episode of apnea after another, the nurse had to shoo me away after hours of monitor watching because I had not had anything to eat or drink, and started getting dizzy by the incubator. She promised to call me if there were any changes, and it is a testament to my complete faith in her that I managed to get out of the way. Once, she called me at work to report that Daphne had taken her first bottle by mouth. Her enthusiasm almost matched mine.

When Daphne got better and required less acute care, she started sharing her favorite nurses with other babies, and we got to know the rest of the crew. We learned something from each and every nurse. One taught us how to rub Daphne’s back to burp her so she wouldn’t spit out half her feed. We learned from that same nurse that kangaroo care was good for Daphne especially when she was having a bad day. Another had a miraculous way to suction her nose, quick and efficient. The night nurses were experts in crafting fancy hats and making the incubator as cozy as possible for restful sleep. One nurse taught me the best way to attach the oxygen cannula to Daphne’s face so it would stay on without hurting her sensitive skin.

I was thrilled to bring Daphne home after five long months, but found myself missing the nurses. I missed our conversations, their gentle guidance, their reassurance. “Call us if you have any questions,” they said. There weren’t that many questions. The nurses had taught us well.