"Oh wow, what a lovely job cuddling babies all day", says a mum when I tell her that I am a NICU nurse. Well yes it is a great job. A privilege and a huge responsibility. But it's also an emotional roller coaster. Knowing the life of these delicate babies is often held in my hands.
The NICU can be a loud, busy place. Walking through the door you are often met with a barrage of alarms and a flurry of activity. Not all mornings start like that, sometimes there is time to take a breath. But other days you hit the ground running. These little people have you on the hop before you even begin. Such fragile little things that even the most stable on the unit can take a turn for the worse in the blink of an eye. I watch them like a hawk, respond to their needs. Turn them, snuggle them into tiny nests. Providing comfort care when the outside world all becomes too much for their preemie brains to take.
I watch in wonderment as their tiny bodies fight to maintain themselves. Encouraging their parents, supporting them in this most trying of times. Comforting their families as we ride this roller coaster together. The ups and downs of being born too soon. I explain the technical interventions required to keep their precious baby breathing and growing.
I spend time with Mum, enable her to hold even the sickest of babies. Calm her when her breast milk starts to dry up through the stress of being in the NICU. Feeding her baby is one of her most important roles, but it's not easy. She is in the unit every day, keeping her vigil by the bedside, she won't eat properly or sleep properly. Feeling guilty, desperate and alone - my support to her is almost as critical as that to her baby. Bonds are created with families, they are trusting you with the most precious thing in their lives.
The ward round comes and the doctors make their plans. Plans that affect the whole family. Mostly there is hope but sometimes there is none. Hard decisions are made. Babies and their families keep coming. Some have completed their journey and we are waving them out the door. Home to a normal life, after the longest of roads travelled. Others are moving elsewhere requiring treatments we cannot provide or stepping down to local units. Completing that final phase of feeding and growing.
Of course there are cuddles. A break from the routine of caring for the sickest babies. A quick snuggle with a feed whilst Mum gets some rest. It is short-lived. The pager has gone, another baby needs the team. We race down the corridor, emergency bag in hand. Sometimes we know what to expect when we arrive. We know that this is a premature baby that will require our support. Other times it's a term baby who hasn't delivered as expected. The adrenaline rushes through your veins, it's not excitement, it is a fight or flight response. I am trained for this, technically I know what needs to be done. But I never feel relaxed, this young life deserves my all, the best of my abilities. This family is counting on us.
There are times when as a team we are shocked to the core after events. You can't help but become emotionally involved with these tiny babies and their families. Whilst everyone maintains their professionalism, ultimately it is the compassion and empathy that we feel that makes us the doctors and nurses we are. In the hardest of circumstances we are there for each other, who else could understand what this job does to a person? Tea and coffee are drunk by the bucket load and biscuits are consumed in vast quantities.
Yes this job is a privilege. It can be both beautiful and terrifying in equal measure. Watching these babies grow, flourish and eventually go home with their parents is one of the most satisfying parts. The journey is hard, for everyone. As a nurse it is technically challenging and emotionally wearing. I can't imagine doing it without the amazing team of doctors and nurses around me.
After 12 long hours the day is finished. Notes are written, babies are tucked into their beds. But the NICU doesn't sleep. The next shift is here. Their turn to ride this train. Continually watching, responding, comforting and caring for the babies and their families. For me its time to return to my own family, to try to decompress from the events of the day. Do I spend the day cuddling babies? Sometimes, but there is a lot more to a day in the life of a NICU nurse.
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