SEPTEMBER is designated as NICU Awareness Month. Many parents, however, have no idea what NICU stands for until they are unexpectedly placed into what seems like the most terrifying situation.
NICU is short for neonatal intensive care unit, a section of the hospital dedicated to the most vulnerable among us — newborns with medical needs. Many of these newborn infants are critically ill. Those who do know the NICU think it is synonymous with prematurity — infants who are born prior to 38 weeks' gestation — however, the NICU serves any newborn that requires more than routine newborn care.
The designation of September as NICU Awareness Month was due to the collaborative efforts of The Project Sweet Peas non-profit organisation and other professional and parent-led organisations to create a platform for the spread of awareness of the challenges faced by families of critically ill babies admitted to the NICU and to pay tribute to the health-care professional team who care for them. This recognition is focused on helping the public understand what the NICU is and how a stay of any length in a NICU can have a profound impact on families.
Neonatology was developed as a sub-specialty of paediatrics only since the 1960s. However, contributions to the field go as far back as the late 1800s and were primarily made by obstetricians initially. The development of rudimentary incubators marked the beginnings of a decline in neonatal deaths. Prior to that era, moms brought their premature babies home to die.
Although he did not create the first incubators, Dr Martin Couney is recognised as the pioneer who introduced the concept to the world. Dr Couney displayed the babies in his version of the incubator as a side show at Coney Island Fair starting in 1903. He charged fair patrons 25 cents to view the babies and the technology that kept them alive. Although necessary at the time (he saved many babies), the field of neonatology has certainly evolved to greater ethical standards.
What does it take to run a NICU?
A knowledgeable, skilled, and compassionate multidisciplinary team comprised of neonatologists (doctors specifically trained in this field of medicine), neonatal nurses, neonatal fellows (paediatricians training to be neonatologists) and paediatric residents — in academic centres — respiratory therapists (in some centres), feeding therapists, social workers, pharmacists, nutritionists, physical therapists in collaboration with every other paediatric sub-specialty.
The care for at-risk newborns has evolved to recognise the pivotal role of parental and family involvement in the care and well-being of their infants.
The NICU is a place of hope and love where parents and the medical teams come together to nurture an infant to wellness. It is a place of tremendous challenges and amazing success stories. For parents and staff, the entire stay can be a roller coaster of emotions. In the end, regardless of the outcome, the intention of the NICU staff is to turn what can be a frightening experience into a supportive, caring encounter for families.
Happy NICU Awareness month!
Dr Marilyn Giorgi is director of neonatology, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Princeton Penn Medicine; and co-founder/vice-chair of The Caring for Miracles Foundation. Follow them on Instagram and Facebook @carm_foundation , to learn more about the challenges that families walking this journey face, the team that cares for them, some of the amazing success stories and ways that you can help.