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An Open Letter To NICU Nurses

Dear NICU Nurses:

I’m sure many of you are parents yourselves. I have no doubt that you remember the excitement, anxiety, or even fear you felt the first time you (or your partner) gave birth. I’m also sure that some of you have had children who had to stay for a bit in the NICU. I know that was a harrowing experience, even for someone like you who works in a NICU day in and day out. Just imagine how intimidating it would be to step in there for the first time, with no familiarity to the people and practices within … with zero medical knowledge and a thousand questions … to see your first-born baby for the first time, hooked up to wires, tubes, straps, and cords that just don’t belong.

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I write this letter as a catharsis of sorts; but also because I know how deeply nurses desire to provide their patients with the best of care. This is not a criticism, but more of a reminder of where that new mom is coming from the first time she enters those NICU doors. All I can do is share my experience and hope it somehow helps someone else.

My first son was born on his due date. After a healthy 40-week pregnancy, we checked in to the hospital to evict the little guy … time to be induced. Contractions came and went, my water broke, more contractions; but I wasn’t dilating enough. After 24 hours, it was time for an emergency C-section. After a stressful delivery, my baby was whisked away to the NICU. I didn’t even get to see him. And because of some complications with my anesthesia (like, I didn’t have half of what I really needed), I was knocked out as soon as he was taken from my body (and I am thankful for that good stuff, Mr. Anesthesiologist.)

When I woke up, I was told my baby would be staying in the NICU for a while. He was a “big baby” by NICU standards, and the nurses kept saying, “Big babies don’t eat.” So, we had to stay there until we could get him eating enough and his blood sugar higher and steadier.

Relatively speaking, our NICU stay was very short—only seven days; but it still felt like a painfully long and taxing comedy of errors. I desperately wanted that skin-to-skin contact that I missed out on right when he was born; but the nurses led me to believe he had too many wires and monitors on him for me to hold him. It was a few days—even after I had been sent home from the hospital—before I even got to hold my son. And that was only after my mother-in-law held him during one of her visits (we had created a schedule to be sure a family member was there with him almost all the time). Apparently, this is up to the nurse’s discretion? It seems that the nurse on that particular shift did indeed think it was important for my baby to be held … at least by someone.

Another time, I walked into the NICU to find my baby boy dressed in someone else’s cute little outfit instead of his hospital onesie. “What is he wearing?” I asked the nurse. “Oh, when people leave the NICU, they often donate their newborn clothes so others can use them,” she said.

That’s sweet and all—and he really did look adorable—but what about all the clothes that I had carefully curated for his hospital bag and his first few days of life that we didn’t get to use? Was I wrong to be so disturbed that the first time my baby got to wear clothes it was some stranger’s hand-me-downs instead of the precious things I had chosen for him before he was even born?

And then there were a couple of scarier moments during our NICU stay. Once, a nurse came over to give medication to my baby; and when we questioned it, we discovered it was actually for the baby next door who had a similar name. Also, before we finally left the NICU, we were visited by a doctor and an administrator that we didn’t know—they came to apologize that there was a mix-up, and the wrong doctor (from a completely different practice) had performed my son’s circumcision. Add all of these events to the lack of information provided by the medical staff, and our NICU stay was a very confusing and scary time, to say the least.

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I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we did indeed have a few nurses who went above and beyond. For example, when one nurse heard that we hadn’t been receiving daily updates from the doctor making rounds, she immediately went to retrieve him and bring him to our baby’s bedside for a conversation. I recall having a physical reaction to this event as I felt the tension in my neck and back ease up a little bit—it was a tiny piece of relief in knowing our son had such a fervent advocate. Why couldn’t all our nurses be as vigilant and caring as she was?

I hope our disappointing experience was a perfect storm of atypical nursing behavior, and I share it with you all only to make all of our experiences better. NICU nurses, your profession carries a weight that many of us will never know … and I know you withstand some very rough days and some very sad endings. But we are counting on you for guidance and information, reassurance and direction.

I know some of you might be thinking, “Your baby is fine. He had a short stay in the NICU with no infection or complications, and he went home healthy. The nurses are there to care for your baby and not you; they did their job.” But, most of the nurses I know entered the profession with a larger purpose—to care for people beyond just what was clinically necessary. At least that’s the way I’ve idealized a nurse’s role in my mind. Am I wrong?

I beg you, NICU nurses, to be more than the brains behind the monitors. Remember that sometimes your shoulder is more needed for that new momma to cry on, and your hands are more needed for those new parents to hold. Please don’t forget that the sights, sounds, protocols and emotional undertones of every inch of that room, while familiar to you, are a strange and scary underworld to us. Those alarms and monitor beeps that have become almost white noise to you create the most jarring and frightening cacophony that any parent has ever heard. Your reassuring voice might just be the only thing that can break through that noise, and it is needed more than you will ever know.

NICU Moms of the Past, Present and Future

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