Neonatal nurses find hope in beginnings
"This is a place of great rewards"

Wednesday, September 16, 1998

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Good Samaritan Hospital is a quiet, dimly lit room. It's filled with tiny premature babies and dedicated nurses who care for them with bottles of nourishing formula and tender words.

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These neonatal nurses at Good Samaratitan Hospital had Lunch with Cliff.
(Michael E. Keating photo)

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"All gone? Good boy! You're growing up big and strong!" nurse Michelle Martin softly cooed to a 3-pound, 4-week-old boy.

By another miniature hospital bed, twin 4-day-olds took turns nursing formula from tiny bottles. They drank their fill -- 1 ounce each.

"You had enough?" asked nurse Kathy McConkey. One of the twins had made a "Stop!" gesture with his little, pink, outstretched hands. She gently sat him up and slowly rubbed his head. Out came a burp nearly twice as big as the baby.

"That's the way, old buddy," the nurse whispered. Then she let out a low laugh that mingled with the buzz of ventilators and hum of heart-rate monitors.

After their preemie patients were finished with lunch, seven of the unit's nurses took a break for their own midday meal, sharing it with me this week for a "Lunch With Cliff." The quiet of the unit quickly gave way to lively talk in the huge, sunlit space of the hospital cafeteria. Faced with tiny babies clinging to life, I found the nurses full of hope, warm, nourishing hope they shared in generous quantities with their tiny patients and each other.

"We always take a window seat," said nurse care coordinator Gene Bengel. "It helps to see the outside world."

For a few seconds, the nurses gazed down on the tree-lined streets of Clifton. As they relaxed, a collective sigh went round the table, like a common grace before their meal.

"The value of lunch is in the act of getting away," Kathy McConkey said, over her blueberry cobbler.

"You have to get away. You have to be in there for 12 hours. You have to get out of that little room."

"It's noisy up there," added Linda Yelton. She's the group's senior nurse, with 20 years of experience in the unit.

"Not that it's quiet down here," she noted over the clatter of plates and the chatter of people in scrubs. "But it's not a noise you have to respond to."

No beeping heart monitors you must race to check. No ventilator alarms to answer.

The nurses added to the cafeteria noise with a lively, free-form banter about husbands and wives, kids going back to school, home improvement projects and the soap opera in the White House.

"I read excerpts from the Starr report over the weekend," Michelle Martin confessed with a blush.

"It was like reading a trashy novel. You start and you can't quit. But when you get to the end, you feel sick."

Rick Hayhow chuckled. The third-year nurse has worked with an all-male crew of firefighters. Now, he's one of only three men working with 80 women.

"People automatically assume working with men is different from working with women, " he said. "But there's no difference. The language at the firehouse may be a little stronger. But everybody gossips about the same things: work, family and the president." The table conversation drifted back to work. At one time or another, every nurse in the newborn unit has been asked: How do you do that for a living?

"People assume we do bad things to babies, poke them with sharp objects and make them cry," said nurse care coordinator Lisa Vormohr.

"To a lot of people, "Intensive Care Unit' means working with people who aren't going to make it," added nurse Karen Stevens. "But here, the babies get intensive care so they can grow into regular-sized babies. Our patients get to go home. That makes it all worthwhile."

Three years ago, Jacob Martin was a patient in the unit. The preemie weighed 2 pounds, 12 ounces at birth. Today, he weighs 28 pounds. Jacob's the reason his mother, Michelle Martin, joined the unit's nursing staff.

"This is a place of great rewards," she said. "A lot of people think all we see here is doom and gloom."

Nothing could be further from the truth.

"This is not a place of endings," she said. "We have little lives that are just beginning. Our job is to give them hope and a sense of possibilities."

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

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