Neonatal Intensive Care (NICU) Nurse, Janet* shares her experiences of supporting families and working on the front line.
It’s 3 o’clock in the morning. I’m awake and happy with the quiet around me.
The babies are asleep and a few Mums are snoozing, waiting for their offspring to start up again as they do; little mewling cat-cries of the tiny newborns – too small or too sick to be at home where they belong with the rest of their families.
My mask irritates my face, I know I mustn’t touch it and it’s so difficult. The unit is very hot, to keep the babies warm – but I’m even hotter in the new get-up I must wear to keep everyone safe.
All too soon an alarm sounds, a monitor on a baby is telling me all is not well. After I solve the crisis, I wash my red raw hands and smile. I still love my job.
As I help a woman to successfully feed her tiny 33 week-old baby for the first time, I so want her to see me smile under my mask. The place that a mother and a child both want to be most in the world is together. And yet, the reminders of being apart are still so near… as I go to give her a reassuring pat on the shoulder, my plastic gloves crinkle between our connection.
Another alarm sounds and it’s time to re-gown and glove to admit a brand new baby to the ward.
The traumatic stress these parents suffer from a birth plan gone wrong is palpable – no one writes a birth plan which includes your baby being whisked away to an incubator, with alarms, wires, drips and tubes.
Then add another level of stress to this: the pandemic means that parents are no longer able to share the cot side vigil with each other. Right now, only one parent is allowed to stay with their baby. We are finding that the additional stress placed on these vulnerable mothers is causing heightened anxieties around bonding and coping.
We’ve always helped mothers to screen for anxiety and depression and offer a quick and timely psychological support in hospital, something we’ve been quick to increase since Covid-19. When leaving us, we give a robust handover to the GP, Health Visitor and Midwife for continuing support in the community. We don’t as yet offer this scoring to the fathers, but of course their suffering is just as real.
With the pandemic preventing them from staying on the unit, we can no longer get to know them, answer their concerns and involve them in the treatment of their new child. It’s left them alone and vulnerable, and this is very worrying for their mental health.
So, we’re thinking outside the box. We’re working on video link for Dads and relatives at home, so families can be held together by technology if not physically. We babysit so couples can meet away from the unit for a while. We’re also trying to get these families together and at home as soon as possible, even if it means continuing some treatments as an outpatient.
I take a break. We have a small garden, maintained by a group of ex-parents, as lovingly tended as we tended their babies. It’s beautiful. I can breathe here, alone or with my colleagues.
Sometimes it takes an effort not to isolate myself. I make myself communicate with others… laughing, joking, supporting, reflecting, analysing. Virtual hugs or slaps on the back for a job well done. This picks us up and dusts us down before we have to do it all over again.
I’m tired. Sometimes I can’t get the different machine alarms out of my head as I drive home, wondering if I’ve done all I could, or if should have done something differently.
And then I am overwhelmed when I pull into my driveway.
There’s a packed-up roast dinner on my doorstep with a note. It’s from my elderly neighbour, as a thank you for cutting her hedge a few weeks earlier… something I didn’t do with the expectation of getting anything back.
I have never felt more loved or cared for by people I don’t even know. The outpouring of gratitude and thoughtfulness for me doing the job I love is humbling, and it gives me faith in the caring nature of us all – when all is stripped away, we are witnessing love, consideration and kindness surfacing above all of this.
A few weeks ago, lifestyle guru Dave Hollis said; “In the rush to return to normal, let us consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to.” I now walk my dog without the people and traffic and can hear the full birdsong concerto in the middle of the city. I take the time to chat or video talk with friends and family about subjects we’ve not talked about in years. I like discovering this love and support in my community, at work and at home.
We’re moving in a quiet world where love has surfaced beyond anything.
Supporting each other is our new currency.
If you would like to find support for any of the themes in Janet’s* story, take a look at our following resources:
The NHS have set up a new mental health hotline for staff needing emotional support during the pandemic.
‘Our Frontline’, a collaboration between Mind, Shout, Samaritans, Hospice UK and Dying Matters provides 24/7 support via call or text to key workers in health or social care settings.
Our Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Helpline is for anyone experiencing poor mental health or wellbeing challenges as a result of the pandemic in Hampshire and Isle of Wight.
Our Free Wellbeing Toolkits can help you find ways for the whole family to stay well at home.
Premature and sick babies charity Bliss have resources for parents on their website as well as an email support service.
Male suicide prevention charity CALM provide a free helpline and webchat.
*To protect her privacy at work, ‘Janet’ has blogged about her experiences using a pseudonym. If you would like to share your own story in this way, have a look at our blogging guide.