Decades of experience and success surround UF Health Jacksonville’s tiniest patients.
He has big, brown eyes full of promise, and a smile stretched across his face. He proudly stands in front of an American flag in a combat uniform framed by broad, strong shoulders. No one recognizes the face on the wallet-sized photo, but it brings a smile to every nurse in the UF Health Jacksonville neonatal intensive care unit.
“We never recognize our patients because they change so much after they leave us, but we remember their parents,” said Cecilia Dew, RN, who has worked in the NICU for 33 years.
The picture was sent to them by a father whose son received care there in 1997. Twenty years ago, his infant was one of the hospital’s 43 tiniest, most-fragile patients who depended on round-the-clock care for survival.
“They can’t keep themselves warm. They may not be able to breathe,” Dew said. “If they are an older baby, they may not be able to properly coordinate their bodies, suck or breathe.”
UF Health Jacksonville has a Level III NICU that can care for babies weighing less than 3 pounds, 3 ounces or who have a gestational maturity of less than 32 weeks. A neonatologist oversees the unit, and specialized nurses administer the care.
“You are not supposed to be born at 23 or 24 weeks,” said Lana Bowers, RN, who has also worked in the unit for 33 years. “You haven’t fully developed. Your body and organs are not able to do the functions that they were meant to do.”
The infants, most of them smaller than a baby doll, lie helplessly in incubators connected to oxygen pumps, vital signs readers and breathing monitors. They are not the only ones who depend on this team to get them through the most vulnerable period of their lives, so do the parents.
“It is heart-wrenching for a parent to have to leave the hospital without their newborn,” said Sheri Inserra, RN. She is part of the NICU transport team and is typically one of the last faces mothers see when their infants have to be taken away.
“We have to allow time for mothers and fathers to grieve the loss of the dream,” Inserra said. “While they are pregnant, they imagine bringing home a big, healthy Gerber baby, but that isn’t always the case.”
Progress can be slow, but infants in the NICU typically double in size with the help of physician assistants, respiratory therapists and dietitians. When advances are made, the team makes sure parents celebrate the small victories in what can sometimes be a long and grueling journey.
“The goal when they come through the door is to get them home because no matter how hard we try, they are going to do better at home,” Dew said. “We treat each infant as if they are our own until they can go back home.”
It’s why every nurse who sees the young soldier’s picture and reads his grateful father’s words is filled with content. He wrote, “The staff made sure we knew up front what we were dealing with and assured us that they would do everything possible for him to survive, and he has.”
The letter continues, “I couldn’t imagine my life without him in it. I want to thank you all for all of the prayers, love and attention that he was given while he was there, and I wanted to send you this photo as a small token and a reminder that you guys change lives every day.”