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Practice Compassion

By Britteny Russo, BSN RN

NANN Footprints: Stories from the NICU December 2021

May 2021…one year since the COVID epidemic sucker-punch. Untitled design 1

We were all still, absolutely, affected by it in a million, tiny ways. We adjusted to a new normal. But there was a cost. For each one of us. It was a much-needed wake up call for many. A reminder that control is just a silly little illusion we humans like to grasp onto like a toddler with a security blanket.

I was a nurse. Unlike the millions of Americans losing their jobs, my job security was pretty rock-solid. But I was expected to leave my family and expose myself to a very public place. A hospital, no less. I had just recovered from a miserable year fighting cancer. My immune system was pretty much non-existent and to top it off I had a baby at home to protect. Just when I thought life was going to return to normal, it felt like the world was imploding. In the midst of it all, I had my daughter. She was my sunshine in this dark, scary world. I had her to focus on, to distract me from the perpetual doomsday headlines and that old fear that had dug itself deep into my heart when I was diagnosed and never quite went away.

It was Mother’s Day. My very first Mother’s Day as a mommy. You could say that after what I had gone through with my health, I didn’t take that lightly. I was very clear on the fact that Motherhood was the greatest gift I could have been given. I stepped into my new role with a huge head start. I had all the knowledge one could ever need to take care of a little one, but I never could have grasped what it would be like to take a brand-new baby home. Every bit of my day-to-day was changed for the third time. First, with my diagnosis, second, with the pandemic, and, last but not least, with the birth of my beautiful daughter.

As I drove in to work, my thoughts were, as always, of her and my beautiful little family and I was so grateful. I knew that deserving people long to hold their own little one in their arms, but never get the chance. That chance was almost taken from me. Almost.

I made my way into work and was charged with the task of caring for two of the little every-day-miracles. The world kept spinning. People kept having babies, and some of the babies still needed a bit of help before going home.

Late morning, I got a call from the mother of one of my babies. She was heart-broken to admit that she wasn’t feeling well. To have a cough in a public place in the midst of a pandemic is like asking for a mob of angry peasants to come burn your house down. It goes through everyone’s mind.

“Why is she coughing? Has she been tested? How inconsiderate of her exposing us all.”

Of course, this is only heightened in an environment like the NICU. We have immunocompromised patients, you know. We were already germaphobes before the rest of humanity began their hatred of the tiny creatures. She wasn’t going to be able to make it in to the unite that day; she was going to have to stay home and recuperate. It was Mother’s Day. She had a brand-new baby in the NICU and she wasn’t even going to be able to hold him on her special day.

My heart broke for her. For all she was going through. Nobody expects their baby to land in the NICU. Nobody plans for that. Nobody is prepared for that. To be separated from your baby after giving birth, then to be inundated with an onslaught of information that just doesn’t really seep into your head because you’re looking at your tiny little bundle of joy through the walls of an incubator. There’s no joy to be had. Just fear.

Is he going to die? Is he going to die? Is he going to die?

Ishegoingtodie?

It’s all that circles through her shell-shocked mind. Now, after being given the boot from the hospital and driving home without her baby, she contracted a jerk of a germ, but not quite as jerky as the coronavirus.

She has to do Mother’s Day apart from her baby.

Is it any wonder mothers with babies in the NICU had dramatically increased incidences of postpartum depression?

I pushed aside my self-imposed rule to not get too close. I took pictures of that precious little boy every chance I got. And, to his credit, he had a pretty spectacular day. He took some great big strides to getting out of our little NICU and I got to give her the play-by-play any chance I got. I reassured her that I would love on him in her stead and that I was grateful for the chance to care for that little boy that made up her whole world.

I’m introverted. I’m weird. I’m not the biggest fan of people. Or parties. Or #instaworthy selfies. That’s why I get along so well with babies. But that day, I was really glad I let my guard down. I connected with that mommy, as a mommy. Not as a nurse. We’re friends to this day and it’s all because of a crappy situation in the midst of a crappier situation that was made a little bit better by some simple human compassion.

I didn’t do anything ground-breaking. I didn’t save his life. But I know that, above all the tasks to be checked off the to-do list, the most important thing I did that day was lightening that mother’s burden. Even just a little bit. I’ll never forget her. And she probably won’t forget me.

It’s these little drops of decency and kindness that add up to the ocean of a life well-lived. It’s why I wanted to be a nurse in the first place. To get the chance to help people who needed it. Really needed it.

It’s easy to get caught up in the medication schedule, the care plan, the doctor, that Will. Not. Call. You. BACK. We’re in this environment all the time, and it’s our home-away-from-home, and it’s just human nature to be wrapped up in our own little world. It can be so easy to forget how heart-wrenching and overwhelming it can be to new parents. There’s so much they don’t know. And it’s really freaking scary. Take the time to slow down and see it from their eyes. Yes, you might not feel like answering their question for the third time. Yes, they take forever to change that diaper. Yes, the baby talk sometimes makes you want to buy a new pair of earplugs.

You can focus on those things. Or you can remember that it’s their baby. And that baby talk and skin-to-skin that those parents want to do is, actually, exactly what that baby needs, and they do it better than you ever would. Treat them as honored guests. Make them welcome and comfortable. Do that, and you’ll provide excellent care of that baby in your charge.

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Interested in sharing your Stories from the NICU? Contact Olivia Cardinale at ocardinale@nann.org.