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While caring for the tiniest patients, NICU nurses guide families through sorrow and joy

a man in blue scrubs holds a newborn over a scale
Christian Bowen
"When a doctor comes in and gives a family really, really bad news, the doctor walks away. But you don't," said Dea Schafer, who has worked as a NICU nurse for 35 years.

The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) houses a hospital's tiniest, most fragile patients. The smallest babies there can weigh less than a pound at birth.

NICU nurses both care for the critically-ill babies, and guide families through an overwhelming and scary experience.

Stateside's Work in Progress series features conversations between people just starting out in a career and a veteran in their field. This time, we hear from two NICU nurses working at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids about the joys and sorrows of the profession. 

Dea Schafer and Emma DeYoung smile in front of a sign that says Helen Devos Children's Hospital
Credit April Van Buren / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Dea Schafer (L) has been working as a NICU nurse at Helen DeVos Children's hospital for 35 years. Emma DeYoung (R) joined the NICU in 2018.

Emma DeYoung, was hired as a registered nurse on the hospital's NICU unit in 2018. Just a couple months after she started, she noticed a little girl she had been caring for seemed to look different than a typical newborn. They ran some tests, and the geneticist told the mother that her baby had Trisomy 18. Children with the disorder rarely make it past one year old. DeYoung said she had to find a way to comfort the mother as they both sobbed after hearing the news.

“I talked to mom for a while and I’m like, ‘We can’t worry about the future right now. We need to take these moments, and she’s beautiful right now, and she’s doing great,'" DeYoung said.

While DeYoung is just beginning her career, registered nurse Dea Schafer has been working in the same NICU for 35 years. Schafer said to be a NICU nurse, you have to be both analytical and incredibly detail-oriented.  

“Our patients are usually like 1 to 5 pounds, compared to 100 to 200 pounds. There’s not room for error there,” Schafer said. 

But NICU nurses also have to know how to comfort families and guide them through the heartbreak of losing a child. 

"When a doctor comes in and gives a family really, really bad news, the doctor walks away. But you don't," she said. 

DeYoung said it has sometimes been hard for her to separate herself from those emotions when she gets home from work. Schafer told her that it's important to strike a balance between being invested in patients and taking care of yourself. But, she added, it doesn't get easier to see families hurting.

"If you really have a heart for people and these babies, it hurts,” Schafer said. 

But DeYoung and Schafer both say there are moments when NICU nurses get to rejoice with parents over a child's progress. Eighteen years ago, Schafer took care of a really sick baby girl over the six months she spent in the hospital. She'd play games with the baby and take her for walks around the hospital. The bond that formed between the two has lasted through the girl's entire life. 

“She comes back every year to see me, and I don’t think she knows how important that is to me ? to just watch her grow.” 

This post was written by production assistant Catherine Nouhan

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Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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