With beeping monitors and sky-high anxiety over the well-being of a tiny baby hooked to machines, it doesn’t seem like time spent in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, would be something parents of preemies would want to remember.
But one NICU nurse with a very personal connection to her work is giving parents little reminders of this time – beads that commemorate every happy moment on their journey.
“I know both sides of the isolette” said Melissa Hewitt. She’s a nurse at the neonatal intensive care unit at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, and when she tells parents that she knows how hard it is to have to leave your baby at the hospital, she really does. She is the mother of two very premature babies.
Her daughter, who is 17 now, was born just shy of a pound. “She was 11 inches long, in comparison, she was smaller than a barbie doll, and spent 89 days in the NICU,” recalled Hewitt. Hewitt’s son will be 16 this summer, and he was born at two pounds. He spent 67 days in the NICU.
The experience helped her decide that she wanted to go back to school and become a neonatal nurse.
“I felt like I was given these babies for a reason,” she said. “I needed to give back.”
Caring for her tiny, vulnerable patients gave Hewitt the idea that parents should have a way to celebrate small milestones – many of which most parents take for granted. She asked the hospital to start a program to give out beads – made of glass and pewter – in all different colors to mark small victories and important moments.
“I wanted to bring the journey beads to Einstein because of the importance I think in commemorating the journey for NICU parents,” said Hewitt. She said many of her patients go through more in their first weeks than other people will all their life.
Ellen Kelly was the first recipient of the journey beads at Einstein. Her son, Charlie, is almost five months old now. He was born 11 weeks early at three pounds three ounces. She wears her beads like a necklace, each brings back a memory of an important moment in Charlie’s life – the first time she held him, the first feeding, the first bath, and the car seat test to get discharged from the NICU.
“The first hold is the yellow one with the blue,” she said, touching the bead. “It was absolutely emotional. We had to wait until he was more stable, and it was for about ten minutes. You get pregnant and you think you’ll have the baby and you’ll hold them immediately, and when you give birth to a preemie and you lose that, it can be very sad. So getting to finally hold him was like ‘oh my gosh – we made it to this point.'”
Charlie is a healthy, strong baby now with beautiful blue eyes, and the NICU nurses were gushing over him during his recent visit back to his “old room” as his mother called it.
“Looking back there are good and bad memories,” Kelly said, “but the beads help you remember the good.”
Melissa Hewitt stays in touch with many of the families and the babies she cared for – she gets invited to birthday parties, christenings and graduation parties. She says she’s a mother of two, but all of the babies whose lives she has touched are her babies, too.