by Dr. Stephen D DeMo, DO MEd
I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy during this difficult time. From a Neonatologist’s perspective, these last few weeks have felt surreal. On the one hand, we have taken some solace in the fact that it appears that infants and children are not severely affected by COVID-19. On the other hand, we have been watching as our colleagues in the emergency room and adult ICU’s prepare for a possible wave of very sick patients to hit the hospital. There s a palpable fog of anxiety in the hospital, as security guards check visitors and staff, and military like triage tents appear overnight outside our emergency department. Personal protective equipment is being rationed, and staff is being reduced in order to limit traffic in and out of the NICU.
One of the scariest things I participated in was counting how many neonatal ventilators we had in the hospital, and how many could be re-programmed to work on an adult patient. While NICU babies may not become critically ill from COVID-19, my colleagues and I remain worried about being able to maintain an excellent standard of care while the rest of the healthcare system is strained.
Perhaps the biggest stressor to our families has been the significant visitation restrictions put in place at our hospital. The NICU has always been a place that limited visitors, especially during flu and RSV season to protect our babies, but COVID-19 has caused many hospitals to reduce NICU visitation to only mom and dad, or support person, for the duration of the hospitalization. Combine that with families that are already navigating the challenge of having older siblings at home and out of school, or being worried about job security for themselves or their spouse, I’ve felt the anxiety in our moms and dads more acutely these last few days. How scary to feel alone in the hospital will a critically ill newborn. During my 2 weeks on service, I’ve tried to just recognize and validate those feelings out loud. I think for some parents it’s actually been good to talk through that.
There have been some positives in this new way of doing medicine- since we are shifting most of NICU follow up clinic visits to Telemedicine (using video like Facetime or through other apps), we are findings new ways to engage with families. Our G-tube clinic has been doing “virtual” G-tube checks, which both families and doctors have loved; will this become the new normal, to help families not have to pack up their preemie for a car ride for every follow up visit? The concept of social distancing has made tangible to the general public the usual protective steps we take to protect our preemies when they leave the hospital. Hunkering down like a preemie mom is now in vogue.
Parents of babies in the NICU, or those at home with a recently discharged NICU baby may feel particularly isolated at this time. That’s why it’s important to use our parent networks to support families, or to check in with moms who may be home alone with a baby during this time. I hope that programs like the Parent Mentor or transition to home packages at Graham’s Foundation will give families comfort as we navigate this new normal in society. NICU families are incredibly resilient, I know we will get through this together.
Dr. Stephen D. DeMeo DO, MEd
Division of Neonatology-WakeMed Health & Hospitals
Regional Assistant Dean- Campbell SOM/WakeMed