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Watching Connections Happen In The NICU

An Interview with Emily Rogers, CCRN–NICU

By Mark Jacob Chaitin, Geffen Playhouse Manager of Education & Community Engagement

Mark Jacob Chaitin: How long have you been working as a nurse in the Neonatal ICU (NICU)?

Emily Rogers: This will be my nineteenth year. I went into the NICU straight after school; I’ve been [there] since I’ve been practicing. Before that, I did a lot of different medical things: I was a candy striper in the hospital when I was very young, I did fire dispatch and first responder–EMT kind of work, I worked in an Alzheimer’s unit as an assistant, but the NICU was where I always wanted to be.

MJC: What made you want to work in the NICU specifically?

ER: I just love babies. The population of babies is fascinating: the way that babies happen – how they develop and grow and learn. I grew up on a farm, and the very first baby that I ever delivered was a goat, and I was 8 years old and I thought, “Okay, this is pretty cool." I thought about being an obstetrician, but then I realized that the one place where I would be working with the babies all the time would be working in the NICU. Also, the medicine in the NICU is very young, [meaning] it’s the newest and youngest department in the hospital; it didn’t even really exist 40-50 years ago. It’s just a really exciting and interesting place to work, in that regard.

MJC: You mentioned the newness of the NICU in terms of the medicine. How has the NICU changed since you’ve started working in the field?

ER: Drastically. The amount of change and advancement in the medicine and technology is going so fast. Babies’ mortality rates are lower than they were 20 years ago, and the age of viability has decreased because we know how to handle younger premature babies. Not that many years ago, babies who were born less than 26–27 [weeks] gestation instead of the full term of 37–40 weeks, were really not viable or had a terrible quality of life, because we just didn’t know how to handle the things that they needed. The technology has grown significantly in caring for them respiratory-wise which is the main problem: babies’ lung tissue just doesn’t really exist earlier than 22 or 23 weeks.

I think other ways that it has changed is there’s a lot more focus on the neuro-developmental side. The unit that I work in is very family-centered. We know that getting the parents or the child’s caregivers involved as early as possible and doing as much as possible is extremely important for the baby’s growth. Medicine has learned to listen to the baby, and not the numbers on the screen or the words in a book. Outcomes for babies of all ages that have been in the NICU have just skyrocketed, and I’m really proud that I’ve been a part of it.

MJC: What was your education and training as a nurse, and specifically as a nurse in the NICU?

ER: I started at a community college where I was doing pre-reqs, and then nursing school was 4 years, and then I applied for the job that I have. After nursing school, the first 6 months to a year of your career, you’ll do a residency program. The program that I did was 12 weeks intensive with 2 days of sit down classroom, and 2 days of paid clinical work in the NICU with a preceptor. During that time you hope to get hands-on, with all kinds of situations in the NICU, with either your preceptor or a mentor that’s on the floor with you. After that, you have a 6 month probation period where you’re on your own, and then after that you’re a free bird.

The NICU is a very close-knit unit. My unit has 16 beds, which is actually small compared to most. It’s kind of a fish bowl, and we never really leave that section of the hospital. We go in, we live in this fish bowl for 12 hours, and then we go home. Everybody knows everybody else and everybody knows everything about all of the patients. We’re all very on top of everything that’s going on in the room – everywhere. We’re a very tight-knit family. As a new person in the field, you feel, in my unit, very supported by your peers, and very respected, also, with the medical team: the doctors and the residents and fellows and interns and other ancillary people; respiratory occupational therapy, physical therapy – we’re all just one big loving unit over these tiny little humans. And it’s just really fun to be there.

MJC: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to pursue a career in nursing?

ER: Nursing school is no joke. I’ve heard doctors say nursing school is harder than medical school. My nursing class started with about 350 and I graduated with 105 people. It’s very rigorous, and I think the advice is to be really dedicated and focused in school. Also, there’s so many different kinds of things that you can do with a nursing degree, and you don’t have to immediately decide in what area you want to work- you don’t even need to be in a hospital.

Other advice is to know that a person goes into the hospital not wanting to be in the hospital. People are there in the worst moments of their lives, and anything that’s happening with them is in their own bubble. You’re there to support these people. A lot of things happen in those worst moments, and none of it is directed to you personally, and none of it is your fault. It’s important for somebody who wants to be in that position to be very open and to be very embracing to [your patients]. When you go home at night you might take things home with you, but you’re doing your job if you can say that you made a difference in this person’s life – even if it was just like five minutes of holding their hand, while something terrible was going on. Then, sometimes, it’s the best day ever, when you get to send your primary patient home with their parents after knowing and taking care of them for 5 months in the NICU.

MJC: Do you still keep in touch with any of the families you’ve worked with?

ER: During Covid, they couldn’t really come back and visit, but hopefully we will get back to families being able to come upstairs and ring the doorbell to the unit and say, “Hi!”, where we can go out and watch the kid run up and down the hallway, talk to the parents and make merry. That was always really fun to see them again, to see how they’re growing. We get cards and letters, and a lot of pictures. This year we’re restarting our reunion parties. We used to have a huge carnival themed reunion every two years, and we would invite a lot of patients of all ages to come and hang out, have a barbecue, play carnival games and just visit.

Emily Rogers at the petting zoo at a NICU Patient Reunion in 2018.

MJC: What other traditions do you have in the NICU with the patients and the families that you’re working with?

ER: We love doing handprints and footprints for every possible holiday and celebration. We love making little signs with those that say various things like “You have my heart in your hands” or “I’m walking in your footsteps.” One of the nurses’ favorite things to do is to give the first poopy diaper to the dad to attempt to change. That’s always fun.

On the day of discharge we always make sure to stop by the bedside and chat with the parents. Make sure they’re doing well – see the baby, hold the baby. We take a picture and we will sometimes make little graduation caps...they don’t stay on very well. The whole hallway outside the NICU is also full of pictures of previous patients. All different kinds of pictures: when the baby was tiny and hooked up to all these different things, and then another picture of them on the day they left, or a picture when they’re a year old. It’s really good for current parents to see – looking at those pictures, knowing that at some point that will be them.

Something that I always say to parents is that the NICU is the best and funnest part of the hospital; it’s true. We get to watch babies grow. We get to watch families grow. We get to watch connections happen. We get to watch babies learn how to eat. One of my favorite things to see is the look on a baby’s face the first time they start discovering breastfeeding or bottle feeding, because their eyes just pop open like it’s the most amazing thing they’ve ever experienced. They have no idea what’s going on, and it’s really awesome. All of these connections are happening so quickly. You can literally watch a baby learn something. What I would love people to understand is that nobody’s birth plan is to be in the NICU, but once you’re there – everybody in [the unit] is there to help you, and to support you in whatever feelings that you’re having. I’m proud that we’re really great at our job. We grow babies very well in the NICU.

tiny father

JUN 12 – JUL 14, 2024

Written by Mike Lew
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Featuring Tiffany Villarin & Maurice Williams

When a “friends with benefits” relationship unexpectedly results in the early arrival of a baby girl, Daniel must choose between being a biological parent or becoming a father. With the help of a no-nonsense night nurse, the new dad learns to navigate the protocols and frustrations of NICU life on his uncertain path to parenthood in this funny and heartfelt new play where growth is measured in more than grams.



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