Last week, I kicked off a new direction for my Real Mum’s Interviews. In April, I will be interviewing mothers who have children with illness. I interviewed my incredibly inspirational, brave and lovely friend Natasha whose daughter underwent heart surgery at 4 months of age. This week’s Real “Mum’s” interview comes from a lovely friend of mine who isn’t a mum (yet?!), but works closely with mothers and their babies who are sick. Catherine is a NICU nurse, working with unwell newborns in hospital. Catherine offers a unique perspective not only about her role as a nurse, but on how processes work in the hospital and the sheer strength of mothers with sick babies. If you’ve ever wanted to read a NICU nurse interview, this is the one for you! Enjoy x
Hi Catherine! Thank you so much for joining us this month for our updated “Real Mums” series, as we look at talking about mothering children with illness. To start us off tonight, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi Fi! My name is Catherine and I am 25 years old. I live in Sydney with my partner Keiran and our mini foxie x chihuahua Turtle. I have been a nurse for five years, and I have worked in the NICU for four years. Keiran and I recently got engaged so I’m spending a lot of my time now planning a wedding – and chasing after a crazy energetic puppy!
Could you describe to us, for those who might not know, what a NICU nurse is and what your job entails?
The NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) is a specialised department that cares for newborn babies who are sick or premature. Some babies only need to stay for a couple of days, others with stay for months as they grow or have major surgeries. The NICU is a hard, scary but inspirational place, full of so much beauty.
As a NICU nurse, I will usually look after one baby at a time, and for twelve hours I stay at their bedside performing assessments and monitoring their vital signs, watching for any irregularities, I will give medications and administer special fluids, take blood for tests, manage their ventilator (breathing machine) and do lots of documentation! We give milk through tubes going into their tummy’s while teaching them how to suck on a dummy. We provide support to parents and work with them to advocate for their baby, helping them to change their first nappy, have cuddles or showing them how to comfort their baby when they can’t be held, encouraging them to touch and talk to their baby. We decorate their crib, write in their diary and stick in photos and footprints to document their journey, and throw “100 day” parties. NICU nursing is more than just a job to us, we know families are trusting us to care for their babies as if they were our own. We share in celebrating the highs and the disappointment and sadness with the lows.
This job must be extremely draining – both physically and emotionally. How do you get through it?
Working twelve hour shifts takes some getting used to! Luckily we usually only work 3 or 4 shifts a week so we have time to recover. NICU nursing is one of the most challenging but also most rewarding jobs. Some days are really hard and I am fortunate to work with so many incredible and supportive people. Fortunately, there are so many more good days and “wins”; when we get to send a baby home (especially when they’ve been with us for weeks or months!), when parents have their first cuddle or give their first bath, when a baby can wear clothes for the first time or have their first feed, when they don’t need help with breathing anymore or when different tubes and wires are slowly taken away. Its so encouraging and exciting when babies come to visit months or years after being discharged, although sometimes we don’t even recognise them because they’re doing so well!
As a professional in the hospital system, you would have come across numerous mothers and parents who have had children with illness. How do you work with the parents in this situation?
It’s so important to work as a team with parents and families when they have a child in hospital! We may know their condition or medical status, but they know their baby better than we ever would – parents are often the first ones to know when something isn’t quite right, even if all the numbers are “normal”. In the NICU in particular we get to know the parents and families really well as we spend so much time together all focused on this little baby. It’s such a foreign environment for most parents and a major part of our job is to introduce them to the NICU world and their important role in it.
I would love to help any new or prospective mums out there who might be faced with a situation where their child is placed in the neonatal Intensive care unit soon after birth. Could you talk us through a bit of the process of what happens if a child is admitted into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit?
Depending on the situation, some parents may know their baby will be coming to the NICU before they’re born, but most of the time it is unexpected, scary and chaotic. Often mum has just delivered so can’t come when the baby is admitted but we try and reunite them as soon as possible. Once in the unit there will be lots of people around and it will be a foreign and overwhelming environment to come in to, with a lot of information all at once. But I would advise to just take it one minute, hour, day at a time, and don’t be afraid to ask questions! Slowly it will all start making sense, and you will know so many things you never imagined you would!
As I mentioned before, you would have met many mums in the NICU. What have you learnt about mums who are dealing with situations of having a sick child?
Mums are so much stronger than they know! Having a baby in the NICU is something no parent ever considers when they imagine their baby being born, and there is a process of grief and feeling of loss for that “normal” and anticipated newborn experience. But mums and dads are still able to celebrate and take joy in the smallest things – we’ve even had “poop parties” before! We also get to see how strong the connection between parents and their babies is; we encourage mums (and dads) to have skin to skin or kangaroo cuddles, which involves direct contact of a baby to their parents bare chest. The positive impact this has is incredible – baby’s vital signs are more stable, they grow quicker and get home sooner!
If you could share one piece of advice or encouragement for new mums who might have a child who needs to go to the NICU, what would you tell them?
Being in the NICU is a rollercoaster – there will be so many ups and downs, and there will be times you will want to get off the ride but can’t, just remember it doesn’t last forever!
Thank you Catherine for sharing your story with us! If you missed last week’s interview, make sure you check out Natasha’s interview here about her daughter’s heart surgery and recovery.