Nurturing babies and their parents

Neonatal unit plans low-key Mother's Day

May 13, 2007|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun reporter

They are the tiniest, the sickest, the ones who wouldn't survive without the linguine-like tubes and wires that link them to machines or outside their climate-controlled fishbowls.

They lie unaware of the blinking monitors overhead, of the wash-up station that is a mandatory stop for any visitor, of their charts at the nurses' station detailing their food intake with precision.

For moms whose newborns are in the neonatal unit at Anne Arundel Medical Center, Mother's Day won't offer rowdy parties of women enveloped by giggling kids and flower bouquets. Today will be another day of quiet time, hours of pressing a body not much bigger than a telephone receiver to their own, minutes for them to hum to an infant wearing sunglasses against the bright anti-jaundice lights, moments of fear that this might be the only Mother's Day this baby will experience. The soft touches belie a fierce will for survival. Odds here are in the frail babies' favor.

In keeping with the low-key atmosphere, Mother's Day will be noted with a card "to my mommy" from each baby, inked with his or her footprints - marks that may be just an inch long.

On a recent morning, in one of the rooms, Saudhi Donaldson leans back in a chair, her premature baby pressed to her heart for the warm skin-to-skin contact doctors say is crucial to her development. The Bowie woman smooths a finger against her daughter's cheek, and the baby bats her eyes.

"I am talking to her and she looks up at me, and I know she knows I am there for her. She knows me," Donaldson says.

Eliana was born May 3 at 2 pounds, more than two months early. Her mother's liver failure and high blood pressure were killing them both.

Eliana has gained an ounce since then from the mother's milk dripped into her stomach through a gastric tube. She hasn't needed a respirator. Good signs.

"I sing her songs - `Row, Row, Row Your Boat,' `Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' - the same songs I sing to our other children. They are familiar to her, she heard them in the womb," Donaldson says. "I sing her Spanish songs that my mother sang to me, `Que Linda Manita.'"

Donaldson stays with Eliana in the hospital outside Annapolis about six hours a day. Her husband, Shahn, comes at midday and in the evening. Before and after, she takes care of their other children, Ethan, 3, and Audrey, 14 months. She relieves her parents, who rushed from their home in Puerto Rico to help.

Audrey was a short-time NICU baby. The second time is no easier, and they know it will be longer. Eliana is expected to be here at least three weeks.

"It's day to day. Some nights I can't go to sleep, I'm crying so much," Donaldson says. This is even though nurses reassure the couple, in person and in phone calls, that Eliana is doing great.

"It does look like something out of Star Wars, doesn't it?" Shahn Donaldson says of the isolette, a clear box with six hand-sized openings. The tubes and monitor wires aren't scary anymore, he says.

"You bypass all that, and you just see your baby," he says.

As the couple settles in with Eliana, Betty Santin, their nurse, dotes. Eliana needs a clean white knit hat, her mother a fresh pillow, and her father should keep up his soft-spoken voice. Santin encourages them, saying Eliana is "extremely stable," but they should keep her warm when she is out of her isolette.

Just after Eliana was born, the couple were a bundle of nerves, not knowing what a sudden abnormality meant - it turned out to be nothing - but such are the ups and downs of the NICU.

After a $4 million expansion, the NICU in November grew to 20 new private rooms and a nurses' station outfitted so the babies are easier to monitor. Artwork of bounding lambs and alphabet blocks punctuates the pale yellow walls.

One in 10 babies, or 500 or so a year, are born critically ill enough to need a stay in the NICU - premature or with an infection or physical defect - though the ones in need of surgery are moved to Children's Hospital in Washington or Johns Hopkins Hospital. Some stay a few hours, some a few months. About six to eight a year don't survive.

In addition to medical duties, the nurses provide TLC for the babies, feeding and touching them - those small tummies require a few milliliters of nutrition every three hours and plenty of human contact. The nurses substitute for the parents and other relatives who don't or can't come.

The nurses hover, looking for the fine line between sleep, which these frail infants spend nearly all their time doing, and lethargy, which can spell trouble.

And they hover over the parents, who are too stressed to realize how stressed they are until they suddenly flood with tears and can't stop.

"It's a very emotional time. Every time I'd see them, I'd cry. Every time I'd really think about it, I'd cry," says Kate Licameli of Annapolis.

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