Let me ask you a question…when you think of an adult ICU, what comes to mind? I bet you think of really sick people often on ventilators (life support) and connected to all kinds of tubes and wires, right? Now, if I ask you to think of a neonatal ICU, what do you think about?
Being a NICU nurse, there is rarely a day that goes by where I don’t hear…”you have the best job in the world…it must be nice to cuddle babies all day”. Well, they’re half right…I do have the best job in the world! Getting to cuddle babies all day is an extreme rarity. Reality is that many of our sweet little babies are just as sick as those adult patients you picture in an adult intensive care unit…only with immature immune systems that make them highly susceptible to infection. We care for babies on ventilators and other forms of breathing machines when their tiny little lungs are underdeveloped and aren’t strong enough to do the job on their own. Sometimes our babies have chest tubes, ostomies, shunts and/or surgical incisions. They often have just as many tubes and wires as adult patients…only on bodies ranging between 2-10lbs.
As nurses we put IV’s in scalps and arms or legs that are barely the diameter of your finger. We are constantly monitoring and watching for the slightest change in a baby’s vital signs or overall appearance and intervene quickly to hopefully prevent a much larger issue. We medicate newborns with narcotics who are withdrawing from the drugs that their mothers took while they were pregnant. We assist anxious new moms with breastfeeding their new baby for the first time. Or explain to a mom, who can’t even hold her baby, that pumping her breasts for that ever precious colostrum and milk is the best thing that she can do for her new baby. Then, as nurses, we take that milk and cocktail it precisely with added calories and nutrients that the baby desperately needs in order to gain strength and grow.
Imagine being in the delivery room on what should be the happiest day in a family’s life and be handed the lifeless body of a newborn. Along with the pediatrician, we perform CPR and give lifesaving drugs in the hopes of bringing them back to life…all the while the anxious parents and family members are watching your every move. Then once in the NICU, you and the rest of the team work tirelessly for hours & hours on end, often forgoing food or washroom breaks, trying to stabilize the helpless newborn…only to withdraw care and hand the baby back to it’s parents so that he/she can die in their loving arms. There is such a fine line between fighting and persevering to keep someone alive and knowing when to stop and let nature take it’s course. That “knowing” is very different between your head and your heart…even though your head knows that you have done everything possible and that it’s time to stop fighting, your heart breaks for the tiny helpless newborn and the dreams his/her parents had for them. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen often in my unit…but it does happen.
The best days at work for me are the ones where I get to finally send babies home after weeks or months in hospital. Even though parents spend hours and hours a day at their child’s bedside and provide the majority of their care, they quite often become very anxious and scared when it’s time to take their baby home. In the NICU, they have the security of the nurses, doctors and monitors which they don’t have once they go home. It’s the nurse who comforts them and reassures them that they know what to do and that their baby is ready to go home.
To be able to place a baby in the arms of a couple who have had years of unsuccessful fertility treatments and are now adopting is so special. It’s instant love. Or having a family, who previously had a devastating loss, come back and have a beautiful healthy new baby…warms my heart. Our families often bring their babies back to say hello and to let us see how big and strong they have become…these are the best moments and the whole reason why we all love what we do.
Like anything in life, there is happy and there is sad, but the majority of the time the NICU is a very happy place. We celebrate each milestone in a baby’s life, no matter how small…each tube removed, each feed tolerated and each gram of weight gained. Every NICU nurse hopes and dreams for our babies just as much as their parents do. And of all the professions I could have chosen for myself…I definitely chose the best!