Stories about: neonatal intensive care unit

Inside the NICU: Shining light on the healing power of touch

Baby girl in NICU with mother
Abigail underwent open-heart surgery and received care in Boston Children’s Cardiac Intensive Care Unit

Traveling through Boston Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), you feel the warmth of natural light and a soothing sense of calm.

One mom, leaning delicately over her son’s bedside, caresses his forehead and gently whispers a lullaby. Only a few steps away, a father rests in a chair with his tiny son on his chest. Lifesaving technology fills the 24-bed NICU and a reassuring team of specialized physicians, nurses and Child Life Specialists monitor, treat and embrace their delicate patients.

Nearly 15 million babies, about 1 in 10, are born prematurely each year and in many cases, require complex medical and surgical care. Equally critical to preemie and newborn health is the healing power of touch, experts say.

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The gift of grandmothers

Nancy and Susan with Sophie at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)

Nancy sits in a tiny hospital room in New York City, reading to Sophie, her infant granddaughter who is quarantined while she battles a respiratory virus.

She keeps vigil over Sophie so her daughter, Katie, can safely spend time with Sophie’s twin sister, Maddie, and her son-in-law can work to support the family. “There was no one to talk to and nothing to do,” remembers Nancy, “So for days, I just sat with Sophie and read her the A.A. Milne poems my mother used to read to me.”

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A day in the NICU: Rituals of communication and care

It was 7 in the morning, and the lights were still low in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The babies were stirring, and it was time for the handoff, the first of the day’s rituals.

Walking from crib to crib, the tired-looking doctors from the previous night’s shift were bringing the daytime team up to speed on each child, summarizing from handwritten notes a dozen-plus variables about each baby into a single picture: This is how ill, or well, the child before you is at the moment.

I cover research in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Division of Newborn Medicine, which runs the NICU. I spend more time in laboratories than in clinics. To better understand the questions that the doctors and nurses I work with are trying to answer, I wanted to see what they see every day as they care for some of our littlest patients.

The division’s Donna Brezinski, MD, kindly offered to let me tag along with her for a day “on service,” giving me a chance to take part in the rituals of communication and care, like the handoff, that underlie the NICU’s work.

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