The first time I had a critically ill baby who needed go to the NICU, I was terrified.
As a new labor and delivery nurse at a small hospital, I was used to happily cooing over a screaming bundle of scrawny newborn, watching attentively as skin flushed pink in those first moments of new life.
But sometimes life doesn’t always go as planned; some babies are sick, some babies need immediate attention after they are born, and some babies require the extra care of a NICU nurse. Which is why I was so grateful to be surrounded by a team of nurses who knew exactly how to care for the most fragile human beings among us, with a touch that is strong and gentle at the same time, efficiency that left me breathless, and an empathy that envelopes even the most distraught of families.
NICU nurses, in my humble opinion, are the most amazing people on the planet.
They tenderly cradle babies only slightly bigger than their palms. They expertly place IV lines (or two) into veins so tiny you’d think they’d need a microscope to see them. They monitor vitals and support lungs not ready to breathe on their own. They do all this and more while comforting families and updating doctors and specialists; keeping their cool in stressful situations and charting every last thing they do before going home to care for their own families.
What I love most about NICU nurses is that they are also, against all odds, really happy and humble people. They are professionals who see life and death and struggle and triumph on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis and they know, more keenly than the rest of us mere mortals, how much of a privilege each and every breath is.
Renee Hendrix, of WellStar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Georgia, is one such nurse. For 33 years, Renee has been touching the lives of families in the NICU. This year, in honor of Neonatal Nurses Day on September 15, Kleenex honored Renee — and all NICU nurses — in a touching video.
I recently set up a time to speak with Renee and was unable to reach her right away, because — get this — on her day off, she was spending time volunteering in prison ministry.
When I did get to talk to her, I discovered that Renee is the mother of four children, ages 20-31, and says that she cares for each and every one of her NICU babies as if they are her own. Always drawn to babies, Renee’s lifelong career began as a small child as she would frequently visit her grandparents in the hospital.
“I would beg my parents to take me to the nursery, and I just remember just staring at the babies and thinking, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to care of the babies,’ ” Renee told me.
“I feel like the love I have for these babies is a gift from God,” Renee explained. “I truly love what I do and I don’t feel like it’s a job. You see these tiny babies, with all sorts of tube and wires and as the days go on, they lose some tubes and eventually they go home, and knowing you had a part of them going better so they can go home, is very rewarding.”
Renee relies heavily on her NICU family, made of staff and nurses, to get through the tough days. And giving back to the families that walk through the NICU doors is a goal of Renee’s.
“I have had four normal pregnancies and deliveries,” Renee explained. “I took my babies home when I went home. These poor families don’t get to take their babies home when they go home.”
The gathering that Kleenex organized truly touched Renee. Seeing the families and babies she has cared for (including two strapping young men Renee remembers as tiny, needy babies!) fill the waiting room to personally tell her how much she means to them was, for Renee, a moment that not many people get to experience during their lifetime.
“My best friend pointed out that having people do that for you, well, it usually only happens at your funeral,” Renee said with a laugh. “So it was a blessing to witness that and hear how people feel about you. It was overwhelming and a shock, because I truly love all those babies that I have cared for.”
If Renee’s video made you cry as much I did and made you want to call up everyone who’s ever touched you to thank them, you’re in luck — Kleenex has a handy online tool to help you send your message of care.
And I may be biased, but you may want to start with thanking a few of the nurses who helped bring you into this world. Just a thought. Ahem.