14 October 2014

It was the nurses!

Last month, I had the privilege and high honor of delivering the endnote address to hundreds of neonatal nurses who attended the 30th Annual Educational Conference of the National Association of Neonatal Nurses (NANN). Asked to speak on the topic of civility and healthy workplaces, my presentation was titled “Igniting the power and passion of civility in nursing: Creating healthy workplaces.

My objectives were to emphasize the imperative of fostering civility in nursing and provide several evidence-based, ready-to-use strategies for creating and sustaining healthy workplaces. The organizers of the conference asked that I deliver a message of optimism and highlight positive aspects of transforming practice environments, a request that fit easily and comfortably with my views on the topic. Clearly, the dedicated, hardworking nurses in attendance wished to end the conference and return to their busy, high-stress working places refreshed and invigorated by a message of hope and inspiration. I was determined to do just that, because they deserved my best.

What the organizers didn’t know—and what I chose not to disclose until the day of the event—is that, just over 30 years ago, I was the mother of a high-risk infant, a baby who spent nearly two months in a neonatal intensive care unit. Conceived during a northern Illinois winter, known for its frigid, tundra-like conditions, my firstborn child was due to be delivered in early August, associated in our hemisphere with sunny summer days. Who knew, instead, he would enter the world in the spring, almost 10 weeks before his due date?

Eric’s story is one I had never shared outside our family and close circle of friends, and, as I prepared for the NANN conference, I wondered if the moment had finally arrived to share a small piece of Eric’s early beginnings. There would likely never be a more fitting audience than this group of exceptional neonatal nurses, so, with Eric’s permission, I closed my endnote address by sharing this story. After all, had it not been for the unwavering, exceptional care provided by the entire NICU team, especially the nurses, Eric might not be with us today. One of NANN’s core values is advocating for quality patient and family care. Eric's neonatal nursing team took this value very seriously and lived it—every minute of every day.

I was young and inexperienced. I read just about everything I could on the topic of pregnancy, and talked with my mother and grandmother frequently about my pregnancy and pending delivery. Like most young mothers, I was thrilled and a bit fearful—all at the same time. Most of my pregnancy progressed normally, but long before the due date, I began to feel sluggish and nauseated. I became quite edematous and easily fatigued. I kept thinking something was wrong, so I visited my physician, who assured me I was fine. Somehow, I knew that wasn’t true, but I forced my worries to the back of my mind and allowed myself to think only about delivering a healthy child. In my way of thinking, if I thought it, it would happen.

When it became evident Eric would be coming much too early, I was rushed—following a flurry of examinations and ER visits—to a nearby medical center that boasted an excellent neonatal intensive care center. I remember arriving terrified. Immediately, I was swarmed by members of the medical team, all of them trying to determine the best course of action. Tests were run, examinations completed, and consultations made, all in a hurried attempt to save Eric’s life. Specialists agreed that the only chance Eric had of surviving was to prepare me for vaginal delivery.

Tests had determined that Eric suffered from a rare condition that included an in utero bowel perforation, an enlarged liver, and gross abdominal ascites, so we knew going into the delivery room that the odds for his survival were poor. The delivery room was packed with nurses, physicians, medical students, respiratory therapists, and just about anyone else who might be needed to save our baby’s life. The delivery itself was excruciating, and the level of infection I incurred post-delivery kept me hospitalized for nearly two weeks. But the real story is about Eric. A tiny, vulnerable infant, his Apgar score was 1, but only because he had a weak and thready pulse.

Eric then—a tiny, vulnerable infant with a weak and thready pulse.
He was rushed to the OR, where surgeons fought to save his life, conducting a procedure so revolutionary it had only been performed twice before. Chances of Eric’s survival were grim, particularly when, six days later, his bowel reperforated in another area of the colon. Over the course of the next 10 weeks, I experienced a roller coaster of emotions—fear, hope, worry, and yes, a love so deep it is unexplainable—all juxtaposed, layer upon layer. Through it all, the nurses—yes, those glorious, wonderful, highly skilled nurses—took care of every one of us, not just Eric, while our devoted family and friends stood vigil, hoping and praying for Eric’s health and recovery.

It was the nurses who, day in and day out, held my hand, accepted my tears, and encouraged me to never give up hope. It was the nurses who loved my son nearly as much as I did and inspired me with stories of other babies who had graduated from the NICU and were living healthy lives. It was the nurses who gave me hope, who never grew tired of my need to talk, who found a way to help me through every second, minute, and hour of each challenging and exhausting day. And finally, it was the nurses who helped me prepare for that most glorious of days—taking our son home. I have never forgotten, nor will I ever forget, the kindness, caring, and dedication shown to our son, our entire family, and me. Because of the nurses, our son is alive today and leading an incredible life. Though he has some physical limitations and lasting deficits, none of them has affected Eric’s beautiful and brilliant mind. He has earned a master’s degree in civil engineering and works as a professional environmental engineer. He is funny, witty, highly intelligent, and an incredible role model, not only for his two younger sisters but for all who have the privilege of knowing him.
Eric today—an environmental engineer with a
master's degree in civil engineering.
I told this story to the audience of neonatal nurses at the NANN conference for the sole purpose of expressing my deepest gratitude for the tireless and important work they do every day. I shared the photos included in this blog to illustrate the incredible life that Eric now leads largely because of their efforts. I also shared with them a note, written in Eric’s voice, that we gave to his nurses the day we finally left the NICU. It’s funny, but I still have the original note. Why, you might ask. It's because Eric’s thoughtful, unselfish nurses made a copy of the note for their notebook and returned the original to me, knowing that someday we would probably wish to have it in its original form. They were right. The note has been tucked away in Eric’s baby book for more than 30 years. It reads:

My dearest friends,

Almost 10 weeks have passed since I entered the world. I leave you all today with great admiration and gratitude. In the first two months of my life, my parents and I have come to understand and realize the fragility and sacredness of life. From your hands and hearts came the loving and professional care which has enabled me to leave here with the potential for a very long and eventful life. The greatest gift we can ever give another is the gift of ourselves. You have given of yourselves over and over, and goodness knows, how much I have appreciated that most precious gift. Thank you so much for your knowledgeable assistance and prayers; and thank you for loving me as much as you have. Perhaps someday we'll meet again and I can do something wonderful for all of you. We will keep you posted on my progress, and I promise to stop by and visit whenever I am in town. May God bless you all, and may your remarkable work continue to benefit all of the little children who pass through this center. You are and always will be so dear and wonderful to me.

Thank you again,


For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International. Comments are moderated. Those that promote products or services will not be posted.