Real life

There’s a rea­son why some re­fer to the peo­ple who work in the NICU as an­gels

Your Baby & Toddler - - Must Reads - BY DIMAKATSO MOTAU

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


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.


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.


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.


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


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

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