NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - They save little ones' lives and keep parents calm during tough stretches of their lives, yet neonatal intensive care nurses don't get nearly the attention they deserve — until now.
"You go in thinking you are going to save these people," Stephanie Chambers, a NICU nurse at New Hanover Regional Medical Center, said. "Sometimes the majority of your shift may be helping someone die."
NICU nurses care for babies born months premature and, in some cases, weigh just over one pound.
"It's scary when they get sicker. It's absolutely scary and heartbreaking," said Monica Hyatt, a NICU nurse at NHRMC.
The survival chances of NICU babies vary. Each time these tiny bundles of joy make it to the next day is a cause for celebration.
"You are not only there to take care of a baby. You are there to take care of a family," Chambers said. "And you are there to make sure a family goes home whole."
No one expects to find themselves in the NICU. Leaving the hospital empty-handed is oftentimes a difficult experience for parents to overcome.
"You have to leave your heart, your whole world in a strange place without you," Chambers said.
The NICU nurses are entrusted with babies' lives from the moment they leave the womb. They start as strangers but become family with the babies and their parents in a matter of minutes.
"Our goal is to send baby home 'well-baby, well-family,'" Chambers said. "[Parents] are just looking for someone to sit with them and say, 'I'm sorry you are here. I totally understand. It's not ideal, but you will get better.'"
The parents come home to an empty nursery. The nurses sometimes struggle to leave everything behind after their shift.
"You go home and you are thinking about [the babies] and praying for them at night," Hyatt said. "Just thinking, 'Make it through the night. I will be back in the morning.'"
Oftentimes after a long shift, the nurses let their emotions take over before the ride home.
"Sometimes I sit in the locker room for 10 minutes and cry my eyes out before I come home just so I have a breath of fresh air," Chambers said. "You have to separate work and home or you will bring it all home."
Regardless of the process Chambers uses to leave work behind when she heads home, she will always have two reminders of what life is like inside the NICU walls.
Chambers was pregnant with twins at the same time she was working in the NICU. She delivered months early and soon found herself with two NICU babies of her own.
"It provided me with huge insight into the loss of control parents experience," Chambers said. "Until you've put yourself in the car to go home without your baby in the car seat, until you've walked in the empty house and into the empty nursery without a baby in the crib, you really don't understand what it means to be a NICU parent."
Now 18 months old, her twins are out of the NICU and, by all accounts, living fun-filled, healthy lives.
Chambers is using her experience to help her patients' parents cope with the immense amount of stress and fear of the unknown inside the NICU.
"I'm sad my babies had to be there, but I'm grateful for my experience so I can help moms and dads and babies in the future," Chambers said.
Monica Hyatt's face lights up when she walks into her patients' rooms. Her deep bonds with these NICU babies and their parents is apparent after mere minutes of talking with her.
"My first care baby, when she went home, I could barely walk down the hall," Hyatt said with a smile. "The whole goal is for them to get better and go home but you miss the bond that you have with the baby and the family."
It's clear parents respond to Hyatt's positivity and feel comfortable when she's in the room. It's no surprise one family decided to take their relationship with Hyatt a step further.
"I became a godmother here. It was pretty magical," Hyatt said with a beaming smile. "The mom and dad saying, 'We know you love our baby. When you walk into the room she hears your voice, you can tell she gets excited,' and the parents said, 'I notice that. We notice that and you have to be a part of our lives.'"
Her goddaughter, now 18 months old, lives with her parents in Virginia. Hyatt said they always make time for visits and birthday celebrations.
Their mere existence is a miracle. These NICU babies face an uphill battle the moment they come out of the womb.
Nurses say the fight in these little ones is unparalleled. It's clear after spending time with these babies that their survival is a product of perseverance and a support system any child would be lucky to have
"They are strong and they fight and they have a strong team behind them and we never give up," Chambers said.