I am a registered nurse in a large fast paced teaching hospital working alongside some of the world’s smallest patients and their families. Families within the NICU play a vital role in the overall care of our infant patients as well as their successful discharge. Before the pandemic, in-person support groups between NICU parents were held and supported. Parents were allowed, and encouraged to bring in grandparents and siblings so that the entire family could be together. Parents of premature infants face a lot of challenges and uncertainties and the NICU journey is often described as a roller coaster. Family support in the NICU is critical, the amount of encouragement and strength that comes with a visit from grandparents is amazing. Siblings are often in awe of how small their new sister or brother is while bonds are formed while they touch their siblings’ foot through the isolette porthole for the first time.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed our hospitals and rocked our visitor protocols, placing our patients into an isolating environment of almost no outside visitors. My hospital shifted visitor restrictions with the current local covid environment. The visitors allowed into the NICU have been only mom and dad, and at the most restrictive moments only one parent was allowed in per 24 hours. These new restrictions meant that siblings were no longer allowed in, forcing parents to make difficult decisions trying to balance being at the hospital and at home. Our large hospital sees patients throughout the state and neighboring states meaning home could be hours away. The pandemic has meant that family members are meeting the infants through a phone screen, delaying the physical bond for not only weeks, but often months. The strong support system of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and close friends has moved to video chats and long phone calls.
In order to support these families and their babies our staff has also needed to adjust. We removed the volunteer program who gave babies the extra support they needed when their loved ones were gone and in order to fill that gap our staff stepped up to fill the void. Nursing staff has provided extra support to parents and zoom meetings to parents unable to visit in person. They have also created scrapbook pages, extra photos, and letters to siblings at home to keep them connected.
COVID-19 has kept a lot of families apart during inpatient hospital stays but I am proud of the resilience of not only the families but the staff during this difficult time. Let’s continue to keep strict visitor rules in order to protect the health and safety of our vulnerable inpatients while remembering just how isolating it has become for our families.