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Life as a NICU nurse

Photo: Life as a NICU nurse
Nursing as a profession brings with it all types of mixed emotions, often on a daily basis, but life as an Neonatal Intensive Care Unit nurse can lead to intense highs and deep lows, with each day literally a matter of life and death.

Born at just 27 weeks herself, and weighing just 630 grams, NICU nurse Bernadette Mich was always going to follow the path of the nurses that saved her life. 

“I wanted to become a neonatal nurse to give back to the community that nursed me to health and to help people,” she says.

After completing her nursing degree, and undertaking her first year placement in the NICU, Ms Mich now works alongside some of the nurses that looked after her as a premature baby.

And while there’s no mistaking the love Ms Mich has for her role as an NICU nurse, it’s a career path that’s fraught with intensity and emotion.
“I have looked after 24 week prems that have been 600 grams or less,” she says.

“It is stressful, tiring and rewarding to look after these babies, as a lot of work is required to keep them alive.

“It feels rewarding to look after these premature babies to watch them fight so hard to stay alive. It is amazing to see.”

Sadly though, a happy home-coming is not always the end result.

“I get very upset and emotional if a baby I am looking after doesn't make it,” says Ms Mich.

“I cope by having a cry and debriefing to colleagues.  I also cope by getting a certain sense of relief knowing I did everything I could to try and save the baby.”

Of course it’s not every day that a baby either goes home, or sadly passes away. Most days are filled with the in between - the caring, nursing, holding and feeding of these tiny, little babies.

“I do 8 hour day shifts and 10 hour night shifts.

“We receive handover at the start of the shift, then plan out our day. During our shifts, as part of the care we take baby's temperature and change nappies and do observations.

“Depending on whether you are in special care or NICU and how sick the babies are, the patient ratio is 1 nurse to 4 babies.

“Depending on baby's gestation and condition, we feed them every 1-5 hours. We give medications at certain times and change fluids. Bath and weights are done on certain days as well.”

That’s the practical side of things. For Ms Mich, the difficulty lies in knowing the babies are so unwell, and often in pain.

“When I see a sick baby I feel sorry and upset for them because they are just babies, they are helpless.

“I also feel determination to help them in the best way possible for that shift. I try and think positive and that they will make a recovery.”

Ms Mich says with some babies remaining on the ward for up to four months, it’s easy to form an attachment, making it difficult both when they don’t make it, and when they leave.

“I get attached to the babies especially of they have been long term prems.

“If I don't look after them on a particular shift I sometimes go into the nursery they are in just to see them.

“You feel so proud watching them grow and progress, getting off breathing support and feeding well by discharge.

“I feel happy when they leave to go home but sad as you won't be seeing the baby everyday anymore.”

An NICU nurse’s caring role extends beyond the infant, often resulting in close bonds with parents who are struggling to come to terms with their baby’s medical condition.

“Having a sick baby has a great impact on the parents.

“It puts a lot of stress and worry on them and they are often and unsure at times of what the outcome will be, although they try and remain positive.”

Ms Mich says the sheer overwhelm many parents experience as a result of a premature birth means they often struggle to understand all of the information they’re given by doctors.

“As nurses we try and comfort and reassure them.

“The biggest part is supporting the parents no matter what the outcome. It is like a roller coaster ride for them up and down good and bad days.”

Ms Mich says NICU nursing differs from other nursing roles in that it is a very specialised field, focusing solely on sick and premature neonates and their families, as compared to adult nursing with can be quite varied.

“I would certainly recommend NICU nursing to others.

“Although it is challenging and tiring at times it is worth it and it is a very rewarding and satisfying job.”

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