A Nurse's Empathy Can Have a Huge Impact

When a parent has a baby in the NICU, a nurse's response can help parents struggling with emotions.

By Dianne I. Maroney

During my 11 years as a nurse in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU), I witnessed my share of tragedy, joy, and suffering. I worked in state hospitals, private hospitals, and teaching hospitals. My patients ranged from wealthy to poor. These experiences provided me with an objective view of what families endure when a baby is premature. Then my own worst nightmare happened; I delivered a 26 week and 1 day, 790 gm baby girl.

For years as a nurse, I had been telling parents that, "having a baby in the NICU is a roller coaster ride." Although accurate, the analogy pales beside the reality. The range of emotions is beyond imagining. There is the moment of joy when she opens her eyes peacefully, followed by panic at the slightest hint of trouble.

My anticipation of seeing Mackenzie for the first time bordered on dread. I knew what to expect, but I couldn't help fearing the worst. When I entered the nursery and saw her on her tummy, swaddled and peaceful, it meant the world to me. Keeping her swaddled, positioned well, and comfortable became essential. It provided that one picture of her that looked "normal."

Before Mackenzie's birth I hadn't realized the magnitude of grief parents experienced surrounding the loss of a "normal baby." When Mackenzie was born, we hadn't been through the normal parent bonding that occurs during pregnancy. I had just begun to feel her kick. Nothing was prepared at home. We lost the joy of holding, talking to, and taking care of our precious baby girl. The mourning for our "normal baby" was unbelievably painful.

Lack of control was one of the most powerful and frustrating issues I felt. All parents feel a lack of control; it's a vital issue while helplessly watching their children suffer. To help understand how I felt, remember the first baby you became very attached to. Imagine coming to visit him everyday, not as a nurse, but as a mom. During your time with him you wanted nothing more than to help him through the difficult periods, hold him, dress him, change his diaper; but you were powerless. Every single thing that happened to him mattered! It mattered not only for the moment but for the future: his eyesight, his lung disease, his ability to walk. There may have been brief moments where you were helpful, but the baby's life was truly in the hands of others. This lack of control is very intimidating to parents and is often interpreted as failure.

Although I often felt powerless, it helped that I was an NICU nurse. Mackenzie had wonderful primary nurses who allowed me to have input and thus a sense of control. The days her primary nurses were not there were difficult days; relationships varied, and so did my control. I now know from experience that primary nursing is crucial.

Attitudes of the nurses made the difference in the day. Mackenzie knew who was taking care of her and did better if her nurse cared and took that extra step to show her. Their friendly, trusting, and caring attitudes relieved my stress. When they looked at me with empathetic, understanding eyes and shared words of support, it helped more than they realized during those unstable moments of fear and depression.

Dianne I. Maroney is a NICU nurse and the co-author of Your Premature Baby and Child.