BANGOR, Maine — Lisa Barnett, a clinical nurse in Eastern Maine Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit, has three children of her own, but in her mind the number is probably close to 100.
Then again, it may be even more.
Barnett and many of the other 74 doctors and nurses who make up EMMC’s Hilda C. Rosen NICU group got a chance to catch up with their extended families during the hospital’s 30th annual NICU reunion in Mason Auditorium on Sunday afternoon.
“When parents are here in NICU for a long time, they really let you into their family, so this really is a family reunion of sorts,” said Barnett, who has worked in the NICU for seven years. “This is the true benefit of our work, to see how we’re able to help them become parents and see how their kids have grown over time.”
Tears intermingled with laughter as infants who spent anywhere from 48 hours to five months in one of Maine’s two Level 3 NICU facilities were reunited with their primary caregivers.
“We usually have around 100 families and about 250 people attending each year,” said Tina Gist, the NICU nurse manager. “We had people come from as far away as Calais, Houlton and Presque Isle today.”
The Pete family didn’t have far to travel from their home in Old Town, but they would have made the trip even if they lived 200 miles away.
“I felt sadness at first when I came in here today, because it was a scary reminder of the time we first met these people,” said Trisha Pete, whose voice began to tremble and whose eyes welled up with tears as she recalled her family’s NICU experience last year. “But then it was a feeling of love and friendship from all the doctors and nurses. It was absolutely amazing.”
Pete, her husband Dave, and 7-year-old daughter Rhiannon became close to Barnett while their daughter Caroline — now a healthy, 14-month-old, spent 63 days in EMMC’s NICU after being born 27 weeks premature.
“She took me aside and said ‘I want to be your primary nurse,’ and I didn’t even know there was such a thing,” Trisha Pete said. “It was like having someone who was a part of your family there. And they’re part of your family now.”
NICU nurses such as Barnett aren’t just caregivers, say hospital staff members and the families they help, they also provide emotional support and serve as liaisons between families and hospital staff.
“They were very honest with us up front, saying there were going to be a lot of bad times as well as good times and that she may not make it, but they couldn’t have been better,” said Dave Pete. “I think the thing that sticks out the most for me was there was one day about halfway through when she was having a really bad day. They had to keep giving her a lot of medical attention and we even left for a while because they had to be so hands on with her.”
Caroline Pete was born weighing just 2 pounds, 6 ounces.
“When we came back, we had a good conversation with one of the doctors and [Barnett] and they had a strategy to change her feedings, and after that, it was like a constant straight line up as she got better,” he said.
The Petes’ NICU stay was longer than the usual stay.
“We admit around 400 babies to this unit a year and the typical length of stay here is about 19 days,” said Gist. “No matter how long their stay, there’s always a bond that only grows after they arrive here. They get more than care for their babies. They get emotional support.”
Trisha Pete can vouch for that.
“On the bad days, they made them better, and on the good days, they celebrated with us,” she said.