The day that I found out I received a NICU internship at a local hospital, I was ecstatic.
As a student majoring in Family and Child Sciences and Psychology, the opportunity to be in a NICU, helping families to cope with their experience, was exhilarating.
I couldn’t wait to get in there and talk to families in crisis, work amongst nurses, and help families to heal.
What I didn’t realize was how difficult it would be.
Teaching “COPE” to Parents
During my NICU internship, I was responsible for implementing a program called “COPE”, which stands for Creating Opportunities for Parent Empowerment.
This theory behind this program is to provide parents in the NICU with information on:
- What to expect when you have a baby in the NICU
- What to expect in a NICU setting
- At home care for a NICU baby
- Appreciating small milestones
The program was literature based, meaning, I would provide families with information packets and take pictures of them with their babies during each new milestone.
The program emphasized the importance of celebrating any and all progress. For many families, their time in the NICU can last for months.
This can be really discouraging when your baby is so far away from being healthy.
By focusing on taking small steps and taking matters one day at a time, it helps to appreciate even the little victories.
The ICU COPE Outcome
The program didn’t really have as much of an impact as I had hoped.
People weren’t really interested in reading pamphlets or taking pictures next to an incubator.
In the NICU, families can easily get overwhelmed by things such as:
- Nurses and doctors coming in and out of their rooms
- Medical terminology that they are unfamiliar with
- Tracking every progression and setback their baby makes
- The stress of the unknown and if/when they can bring their baby home
All of these things are on top of trying to treasure what limited time they have to spend with their baby.
As you can probably imagine, the last thing they want was a really excited intern on a mission to save the world, handing them an educational pamphlet. I get it.
So this begged a new question: If this program, specifically designed to help vulnerable families in the NICU, isn’t really working, what will?
Bonding with Your NICU Parents
The relationship that nurses build with parents is incredible. Not only are the lives of their children in nurses’ hands, but many times these nurses are teaching parents how to be a parent.
Even if they already have children, being a parent to a baby in a NICU is a completely different experience.
From feeding techniques to changing microscopic diapers, to learn what is just a hiccup and when to get help, nurses are right there, patiently teaching and serving.
While I am not suggesting that nurses pursue an additional degree in counseling, I think that they are in a unique position where a referral to seek counseling would be very powerful.
The Great Divide in Health
There seems to be a big divide between physical health and mental health.
For some reason, we let our physical health take precedence and priority to our mental health.
Many of us view the two as separate entities but fail to realize how intertwined the two really are.
When merging that mentality in a hospital setting, it helps to portray the idea that both are important and both need to be taken care of.
By teaching medical professionals how to spot basic signs of psychological distress, they can help to coach patients and families on when and how to seek mental health counseling.
How Hospitals Can Help
Hospitals (especially intensive care units), need to have someone dedicated full-time to helping patients and families cope with the stress of an extended hospital stay.
Having a trained expert available to talk to families and patients going through hardships is important to help families overcome adversity and grow stronger.
Hospital stays can put a lot of stress on families and have someone on-call to talk to would be very beneficial.
Concluding my NICU Internship
So while the COPE program was a step in the right direction, I feel that the needs of the NICU have been somewhat overlooked for quite some time.
Knowing that having a baby in the NICU makes mothers twice as likely to have post-partum depression and hospitals are truly missing a big opportunity to intervene and provide the help they know parents need.
While I didn’t get to make the impact I was hoping for in my NICU internship, my efforts won’t stop there.
My goal is to shed some light on this issue in hopes that others will see it as a priority too and encourage healthy families from the very beginning.
It’s all thanks to my time spent at my NICU internship. Let’s help to make sure that each family starts off on the same foot.
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