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Child explains the NICU team: physicians save lives! nurses hold hands!

October 2004 -- An article in this month's Child magazine, Gloria Hochman's "A Celebration of Survival," describes a joyous reunion of 300 NICU alumni aged 1-12 at Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. In some ways the story is a fairly good look at what families endure when a newborn has a severe problem, and at the ever-increasing options for recovery. Unfortunately, the piece clearly suggests that physicians alone are responsible for saving lives, an inaccurate message that is especially disheartening to see applied to the highly nurse-intensive NICU.

Right in the first paragraph, we learn that some of the older kids at the celebration and their parents made their way to the director of neonatology, Jay Greenspan, so that the kids could tell him: "Thank you for saving my life." Likewise, in the third paragraph, we are told that this "youthful-looking physician with a reassuring known [to the parents] as 'the baby saver.'" Worried that nursing is being completely ignored, as it generally is in Child magazine? Don't be--that same paragraph notes that the NICU party gives the parents a "chance to hug the nurse who held their hand through the most agonizing days of their lives." In fact, the professional skills and dedication of NICU nurses are central factors in the physical survival of patients, who require extraordinarily complex monitoring, medication administration and other procedures 24 hours a day, tasks that are performed by nurses. One quote from a parent much later in the piece does suggest that she thanks "the staff, from doctors to nurses to social workers" for providing the care that kept her child alive and the compassion she needed, but this is far too vague and too late.

Interestingly, though Dr. Greenspan is clearly the star of the lengthy piece, the author does include significant and effective comment from Sue Lagner, the head nurse of Jefferson's intensive care and transitional care nurseries. Ms. Lagner describes how NICU parents feel, how their presence can help the patients, and the emotional strain on the unit's staff. However, this is all consistent with a vision of nursing as being all about comfort and empathy--as is the inclusion of Lagner's comment that it's not unusual for nurses to call from home to check how a particular baby is doing. We have no problem with anything Lagner said, and presenting her as an authority at least on emotional support helps redeem the article a little. But the overall piece strongly reinforces the common and damaging misconception that nursing is nothing but emotional support.

The note at the end of the article says that Ms. Hochman is a "journalist and bestselling author who has won more than 25 awards for her writing on medical and social issues." Isn't that amazing--they actually give awards for people whose job involves nothing more than sitting at a keyboard and typing nice thoughts. We thought maybe all they got were hugs.

Gloria Hochman's article "A Celebration of Survival" appeared in the October 2004 issue of Child, pp. 183-187, but appears to no longer be availble online. Email Ms. Hochman in c/o Child magazine at Please be sure to address it to Ms. Hochman's attention.



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