CHENNAI: Usharani Sasikumar has 16 years of experience in nursing. She is the nurse manager of the intensive neonatal care unit at Kanchi Kamakoti Child Trust hospital. She tells us what neonatal nurses do, and why every NICU encounter counts.
I have always been passionate about saving lives and that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. In fact, I wanted to become a doctor but due to a few reasons, I couldn’t. So, I decided to become the second best health care professional — a nurse. After graduating from nursing college, I worked for a while in both adult and pediatric care and realised that my inclination was more towards pediatric care. Well, adults can say what they need and can tell us if they are in pain but an infant cannot. They need our full attention; every decision has to be taken by looking, observing and monitoring. I took up the challenge and stepped into pediatric and then neonatal care.
Can you imagine holding an infant that weighs barely a few hundred grams, attached to medical equipment? A change in position could possibly lead to injury due to accidental removal of tubes. Meeting the families of the babies in the NICU is like walking on a rope of sadness and uncertainty. We see the fear of the unknown in their eyes; they have a million questions about how and why this happened and what can be done to make everything right.
To make them come to terms with the situation without instilling fear is a task. But, we know what to do; we are ‘trained professionals’ for a reason. In this journey, we become family to them. We constantly reassure, educate and encourage them. To nurse and handle these infants from day zero until the first month of their life while caring for their parents requires immense emotional endurance.
The nurses usually work in a six to eight-hour shift with newborns that have a variety of problems from congenital defects, surgical problems other body malformations to prematurity.
Being in this field, you are often put in situations where you not only believe in yourself but also in miracles. Just about two months ago, a 28-week premature baby weighing 680 grams was admitted to our unit. Since the newborn was extremely fragile, it was challenging for us to feed and put in other tubes. But, after several complications, we did what was required to stabilise and keep the baby healthy. The mother, on the other side, cried for days until the child’s health alleviated.
After weeks of treatment, the baby’s weight went up to four kilos and was later discharged. Now, the baby weighs about six kilos and is one bundle of joy… but, not everyone is lucky. We have about 60-70 admissions every month and our goal is to achieve zero mortality. But sometimes despite the best technology and healthcare, some babies leave us too soon due to unforeseen conditions.
During such times, we can’t vent our grief in front of the parents. Imagine taking care of a child for weeks to finally end up seeing them take their last breath. But instead of crying, we support the parents emotionally. They are counselled and in most cases, we try to absorb all their stress and anxiety. Once we go back home, we try to overcome our anguish with support from our family and friends. But, we cannot and don’t let it affect us… every day, every child, every encounter and every life is important to us.
It certainly is extremely exhausting to achieve our goals, but nothing can be more satisfying than curing a child and seeing them grow, right? We are hyper-vigilant and it is essential in neonatal units. From the measurement of milk, equipment to temperature, everything has to be re-checked.
With nurses often being misrepresented in mainstream media, demeaned, and shown as dim-witted people, the reality might seem extremely different. One does not have to honour us or look at us in awe but, I believe that we deserve to be acknowledged.
We also have a family to take care. My day starts at 3 am. I finish all the household work, cook, and leave to work. Once I come back from my eight-hour shift, I spend time with my family and my day ends at 11 pm. Being a neo-natal nurse is not just about ‘holding a baby’. It’s more than that. It’s intense, challenging and real.