There’s a reason why some refer to the people who work in the NICU as angels
Meet the NICU nurse who spends her life looking after preemies
Amodern-day Florence Nightingale, neonatal intensive care unit manager Sister Mary Kgetse (48) believes her work is a part of God’s plan. She feels she was put on earth to save lives, and taking care of premature babies is her idea of living the dream. But it is by no means an easy feat. The neonatal ICU is an emotionally taxing and stressful environment that requires a special kind of nurse. Sister Mary is one.
The nursing staff in the neonatal ICU take care of babies born prematurely, as well as babies who need a bit of extra care after birth. While full term babies arrive weighing 2kg or more, the babies Mary and her colleagues see can weigh as little as 500g. These babies do the life-and-death battle on a daily basis, and this is very emotionally taxing at times. “I tend to focus on the positives. In the neonatal ward we deal with newborns and some of them are with us up until three months. We build relationship with the parents because we spend so much time together. In the paediatric ward, we take babies who were not born in our hospital and take care of them from there,” she explains. “I love seeing a baby who weighed less than 500g making it and being discharged from the wards. This job requires love, patience, understanding human dynamics and the fact that we’re part of God’s bigger plan to save lives,” Sr Mary says.
“It’s very challenging when one of the babies passes away immediately after birth. But when the babies come to the NICU and get to live before passing on, at least the parents are prepared in terms of what to expect, as we have to be honest at all times. This doesn’t make death any easier but they know we would have tried our best to let the baby live,” she says.
Sr Mary’s naturally positive and
THERE ARE SO MANY NEGATIVE STEREOTYPES REGARDING NEONATAL CARE BECAUSE IT’S ASSOCIATED WITH SO MUCH DEATH. SO A BIGGER PART OF MY JOB IS TO CREATE AWARENESS
bubbly character help her take this in her stride, but her team works with a psychological counsellor who counsels both parents and staff, because as humans the nurses also get emotionally affected by the births, deaths and struggles in their wards.
A MATTER OF DEDICATION
Though she has four grown-up children of her own, Sr Mary says “her babies” in the NICU come first. Her husband keeps things on the go back in Polokwane, while she pursues her career at Arwyp Medical Centre in Kempton Park. “It’s very rare to find a partner as supportive as my husband. I love my family and they know everything I do is for them. But I have personal career goals and I’m glad I’m allowed to chase my career without being made to feel guilty about not being with my family,” she explains.
Her job requires long hours, and even when she is not on duty she is only a phone call away. This, she says, is a way of ensuring that her team can have access to her in case of an emergency or if they need recommendations while she’s not at work. “I’m not even counting the hours because I love what I do. There are so many negative stereotypes regarding neonatal care because it’s associated with so much death. So a bigger part of my job is to create awareness that the babies are there to be taken care of until they’re healthy enough to be handed over into the care of their parents,” she says.
EXTRA SPECIAL BABIES
Her most memorable newborn is her goddaughter. During a shopping trip, while Sr Mary was home in Polokwane, a pregnant young woman just started bleeding. Mary sat her down and delivered the baby right there, without any gloves or assistance. “My nursing instincts kicked in when I realised what was happening. I delivered the baby, cut the placenta and put it in a plastic bag. Then I drove mother and baby to the nearest hospital and helped them get cleaned,” she says. “I put myself at risk because I didn’t have gloves, but it was an emergency. Today that baby is a lovely 16-year-old young lady,” she says beaming with pride.
STORIES OF HOPE
Another memorable baby was brought into her unit weighing 500g, born between 24 and 25 weeks gestational age – this is routinely classified as an abortion in medical terms. The mother of the baby went into hospital saying she felt something was wrong and almost immediately went into labour and gave birth. A nurse ran two flights of stairs to get to the NICU with the baby where Mary and her team took over.
“This is a story of hope because the parents never gave up on her child. They kept buying clothes and stayed hopeful that they would be taking their little angel home even though the odds were against them. We’re still very close friends to this day, as I am with many of ‘my moms’ because we end up spending so much time with the mothers during the time their babies are in the ward and create strong bonds. That mother taught me never to give up in life,” she says. The baby is now a young adult living with autism.
Life in the NICU is like living in a pressure cooker. Emotions run high and stress levels go through the roof – and
LIFE IN THE NICU IS LIKE LIVING IN A PRESSURE COOKER. EMOTIONS RUN HIGH AND STRESS LEVELS GO THROUGH THE ROOF
it’s the parents of the tiny babies who take the most strain. Sr Mary says that she’s often seen the high stress, blame and guilt involved end in divorce.
Part of Sr Mary’s job entails counselling the parents about the work that’s done in her ward. It can look quite scary, so she makes a point of explaining what the incubator, monitors and ventilators are for. For most parents, it will be the first time they see such a small baby attached so many machines, and it can be a shock. MYTHS BUSTED While mothers tend to stay strong in such situations, it is the dads who struggle most. Sr Mary recalls a father who came into the neonatal ICU ward to visit his baby for the first time. “All he said was, ‘Such small babies, what’s wrong with these babies?’ before collapsing on the floor.” She says fathers are generally more involved during pregnancy and at the birth, but most stop coming to the NICU frequently in the case of premature babies – there is a widespread myth that a premature baby is disabled. She blames this on the cultural stereotype that when there’s a problem with the baby, the mother or her family are to blame. Often the father becomes emotionally unavailable as a result. “Some fathers blame themselves for not being there enough or even blame cheating on their partners during the pregnancy as being the cause of the premature birth. This is not true, as a pregnancy is a medical condition and the best way to avoid any complications is to attend antenatal clinics and classes as soon as you find out you’re pregnant,” says Sr Mary. “This way a lot of potential health hazards that can result in premature birth, like high blood pressure, can be monitored. Women need to know that there’s help – if something is detected early enough, chances are the worst can be avoided,” she says.
Life as a NICU nurse is tough, but Mary stays afloat because of her job, not in spite of it. “My staff and patients draw strength from me so I can’t entertain emotions of being weak. I’m lively and energetic. I love what I do and I’m blessed to have moved up the ranks within this fulfilling profession. We deal with miracles daily. How many people get to experience what we do every day? For me this is a blessing more than anything else. Babies bring families and communities together,” she says.
Sister Mary Kgetse spends her days caring for the most vulnerable babies