My Journey to Becoming a NICU Nurse: April’s Story

By April Bell, registered nurse at CHOC Children’s and mother of CHOC NICU graduates Mikayla and Emma

I’ve been a nurse at CHOC for 15 years. I started working here as a nurse aide while I was in nursing school and after graduation, I entered the RN Residency program as a nurse in the medical/surgical unit. I learned a lot about time management and honed my nursing skills starting IVs, inserting feeding tubes and catheters, and giving medications. I enjoyed the time I spent on that unit, but after about five years I was looking for another challenge. The new pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) and new cardiovascular intensive care unit (CVICU) had just opened on the sixth floor, and I was considering a nurse fellowship in the PICU. However, before I could start that process, I found out I was pregnant with twins.

Not only twins, but very high-risk twins called monoamniotic-monochorionic, or “MoMo.” These types of twins share one amniotic sac and the risk is that their umbilical cords could become tangled and/or compressed. These rare twins have a 50 percent survival rate. I knew they would most likely be delivered early; my OB-GYN did not want to deliver past 32 weeks gestation. We ended up making it only to 28 weeks, as their cords were knotted together twice and wrapped around my daughter, Mikayla’s neck, twice.

Mikayla weighed only one pound, 13 ounces when she was born. Emma was two pounds, six ounces.

nicu nurse
April was a registered nurse in the medical/surgical unit at CHOC Children’s when her twins were born premature. Their family’s experience in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) inspired her to become a NICU nurse.

From the moment the twins were delivered, the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) team that was in my delivery room made a huge impression on me including the neonatologist who was present at the delivery, Dr. Daryoush Bassiri. I met Dr. Bassiri the week before my twins were born, when I was admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital, next door to CHOC. He told me what I could expect if they were born at 27, 28, 29, 30 weeks, etc. The nurses who were at the delivery were also very supportive and kept me informed about what the plan was for the babies.

Both of my daughters need to be intubated right after delivery, but the nurses made sure I could see them briefly before they left for the NICU. The next few days were quite a roller-coaster, starting when Emma became very sick. Because her lungs were not fully developed, she was placed on a ventilator to help her breathe. The pressure of the ventilator caused her lungs to collapse. She needed two chest tubes to resolve her collapsed lungs. Her lungs also developed pulmonary hypertension (a type of high blood pressure) and pulmonary interstitial emphysema (where air collects outside the normal air space). All of Emma’s lung problems are common conditions in premature babies, but it was still a very scary time. I wasn’t sure if she was going to make it. She was given nitric oxide, a medication to treat breathing problems in premature babies, and finally she started to slowly improve. She took a turn for the better, only to face another setback: she was diagnosed with a heart defect called patent ductus arteriosus (PDA). In some premature babies, the opening between the aorta and the pulmonary artery does not close, as it does in most children.

Her sister, Mikayla, although smaller, was doing much better. She only needed to be intubated for about a day and a half and was on bubble CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), non-invasive ventilation support for newborns. Mikayla had the same PDA diagnosis as her sister, and received medication to close her PDA. Emma could not get the medication because the doctors were worried about her kidneys, after how sick she had been. So the doctors decided that a surgical repair know as PDA ligation was the way to go. Once again, we were worried about her. She had an excellent surgeon, Dr. Brian Palafox, who explained everything to me and Emma’s dad. Although he told us what possible complications could come from the surgery, everything went very smoothly.

The next few months were filled with more ups and downs, but nothing quite as scary as the first few days. After they mastered breathing on their own, working on feedings was another struggle. They had an amazing team of developmental therapists, lactation consultants and of course, their bedside nurses. I learned so much from everyone that took care of my twins. As a medical/surgical nurse, I had floated to the NICU before, but I had no idea what each preemie went through.

Emma spent 75 days and Mikayla spent 77 days in the NICU. Towards the end of my twins’ NICU stay, I realized that the NICU was where I wanted to be as a nurse. I spoke with one of the NICU managers and told her I was interested in transferring to the NICU. I was surprised to learn that they were, in fact, just starting a nurse fellowship program. When I started my NICU fellowship, I went with the RN Residents to a special NICU consortium taught by the NICU educator at the University of California Irvine. We were there with nurses from NICUs all over Southern California. I finished the NICU fellowship when my daughters were just about 1 year old. I feel like the classes really helped me understand so much more about the development of the neonate and how to care for them.

During the last seven years in the NICU, I have taken care of a variety of babies, from small micro-preemies to babies who have undergone surgery, and babies with heart defects. I helped open the CHOC Children’s NICU at St. Joseph’s Hospital. I have also had the privilege to care for babies in our Small Baby Unit.

After having two micro preemies of my own, I feel I can really relate to a lot of the parents. I have been on the other side of it and know how frustrating and worrisome it can feel.

I enjoy sharing my story with my patient’s families. I have seen firsthand how strong and resilient these babies can be.

I was working the night that we opened the new, all private room NICU. At the end of my night shift, I helped transfer my patients upstairs and get them settled into their new rooms. It was amazing to see how smoothly everything went that morning. It was also exciting to see the babies in their own rooms. My twins were always with other babies in a pod, and it would have been so nice to have a private room. I would’ve loved to have been able to stay overnight and sleep right next to my babies when they were in the NICU, like the parents can do now in our new NICU. It was hard to leave the NICU when my daughters were there. The noise in the pods could get loud at times, and occasionally a baby would be sick and need sterile procedures which meant all non-clinical staff had to leave the unit. The patients did not always have privacy. I am excited for the patients and families that will benefit from our new private room NICU.

Looking at my daughters today, you would never know what they have been through. They are almost 8 years old and they are just about to start second grade. They’re very smart and are excelling in school. They started reading in pre-kindergarten and have been reading at an advanced level ever since; they almost read better than their older brother, Joey. The only long-term effect from being born so premature and facing a mountain of health challenges has been with Emma, who has a raspy voice from left vocal cord paralysis, a common complication from the surgery. I am so grateful to have two healthy girls.

I am also very grateful for the way the CHOC NICU cared for my own children, and I am extremely proud to be part of it as a caregiver.

Take a virtual tour of our new NICU

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Meet Dr. Kushal Bhakta

In recognition of prematurity awareness month, we’re highlighting Dr. Kushal Bhakta, medical director of CHOC Children’s Small Baby Unit (SBU).

Dr. Kushal Bhakta
Meet Dr. Kushal Bhakta, medical director of the small baby unit at CHOC Children’s

The Small Baby Unit – the first of its kind – opened in 2010. The special 12-bed unit within our neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is designed for babies born at less than 28 weeks gestation or who weigh less than 1,000 grams. The space is designed to aid in babies’ development with dim lighting and low noise levels, mimicking the womb’s environment as closely as possible. The unit is also nurturing for patients’ families. Since they are going through many of the same experiences, families are able to bond and support one another.

“It’s an amazing blessing to be part of these families’ lives. So many parents write to us and send pictures long after they’ve left the hospital. There is a mutual respect, and they become part of our extended family,” Dr. Bhakta says.

Board certified in pediatrics and neonatal-perinatal medicine, Dr. Bhakta is part of a specialized, highly trained team at CHOC. He owes the success of the unit to his team, he says.

“It’s inspiring to see the team’s passion for the lives of these babies,” Dr. Bhakta says. “From nurses to respiratory therapists, and all other disciplines, everyone on the team takes care of our patients like they were their own children.”

The highly committed team is improving quality and outcomes in extremely low birth weight infants. Impressive outcomes from the two years before and four years after the SBU’s opening in March 2010 include:

  • Significant reduction in chronic lung disease of prematurity.
  • Significant reduction in the rate of hospital-acquired infections.
  • Significant reduction in infants being discharged with growth restriction . These factors are linked to cognitive and physical disabilities.
  • Reduction in the average number of laboratory tests and X-rays per patient.

Dr. Bhakta’s vision for the SBU is to be recognized nationally and beyond as the premier destination for the care of extremely preterm infants. Dr. Bhakta and his team have hosted many hospitals interested in modeling their units after CHOC’s SBU. As leaders in their field, the team hopes to continue to improve patient outcomes.

“We’ve come so far in how we treat this patient population, he says. “We don’t want to only adapt knowledge, but create the knowledge and help set standards of care for these patients.”

Dr. Bhakta received his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine and completed his pediatric residency and neonatal-perinatal fellowship training at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, in Houston, Texas. He later joined the faculty at Baylor College of Medicine/Texas Children’s Hospital as assistant professor of pediatrics, where he also obtained an advanced certificate in teaching through the Educational Scholars Fellowship Program.

Dr. Bhakta has received several awards throughout his career, including “Super Doctors Southern California Rising Stars” in 2014 and 2015.

In his spare time, this dedicated physician enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters.

Learn more about CHOC Children’s Small Baby Unit.

Related posts:

  • Meet CHOC NICU Graduates
    As we prepare to celebrate the opening of our all-private-room NICU, say hello to a few graduates of the CHOC NICU.
  • Inside the Small Baby Unit: Ryan’s Story
    Danielle McLeod was looking forward to an easy second pregnancy and ultimately caring for her infant son as a confident and assured second-time mom. But that expectation changed when little Ryan ...
  • Small Baby Unit Before and After
    In observance of Prematurity Awareness Month, meet a few graduates of the Small Baby Unit (SBU) at CHOC Children’s. The only of its kind in Orange County, the SBU focuses on ...

U.S. News Names CHOC One of the Nation’s Best Children’s Hospitals

From treating the most complicated cases of epilepsy and repairing complex urological conditions, to curing cancer and saving premature lives, CHOC Children’s physicians and staff are committed to delivering the highest levels of safe, quality care. That commitment has earned CHOC its most recent accolade:  inclusion on the coveted U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals rankings.   CHOC ranked in eight specialties: cancer, neonatology, neurology/neurosurgery, pulmonology, orthopedics, gastroenterology and GI surgery, diabetes and endocrinology, and urology, which earned a “top 25” spot.

U.S. news

According to U.S. News, the Best Children’s Hospitals rankings are intended to help parents determine where to get the best medical care for their children. The rankings highlight the top 50 U.S. pediatric facilities in 10 specialties, from cancer to urology. Of the 183 participating medical centers, only 78 hospitals ranked in at least one specialty. For its list, U.S. News relies on extensive clinical and operational data, including survival rates, clinic and procedure volume, infection control measures and outcomes, which can be viewed at http://health.usnews.com/best-hospitals/pediatric-rankings. An annual survey of pediatric specialists accounts for 15 percent of participants’ final scores.

“The Best Children’s Hospitals highlight the pediatric centers that offer exceptional care for the kids who need the most help,” says U.S. News Health Rankings Editor Avery Comarow. “Day in and day out, they offer state-of-the-art medical care.”

Dr. James Cappon, chief quality and patient safety officer at CHOC, points to the survey as an invaluable tool for him and his colleagues to evaluate programs and services, determining best practices, and making plans for the immediate and long-term future.

“CHOC is certainly honored to be recognized once again by U.S. News. But our dedication to serving the best interests of the children and families in our community is what truly drives us to pursue excellence in everything we do. Our scores, especially in the areas of patient-and-family-centered care, commitment to best practices, infection prevention, breadth and scope of specialists and services, and health information technology, for example, reflect our culture of providing the very best care to our patients,” explains Dr. Cappon. To hear more about CHOC’s commitment to patient safety and quality care—and what parents need to know— listen to this podcast.

CHOC’s culture of excellence has it earned it numerous accolades, including being named, multiple times, a Leapfrog Top Hospital. Additional recent honors include the gold-level CAPE Award from the California Council of Excellence; Magnet designation for nursing; gold-level Beacon Award for Excellence, a distinction earned twice by CHOC’s pediatric intensive care unit team; “Most Wired Hospital”; and The Advisory Board Company’s 2016 Workplace Transformation Award and Workplace of the Year Award. Inspiring the best in her team, CHOC’s President and CEO Kimberly Chavalas Cripe was recently named a winner of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the “Community Contributions” category.

CHOC Children’s Begins NICU Expansion

To enhance its patient- and family-centered care experience and meet the growing demand for services, CHOC Children’s Hospital has launched an expansion to its neonatal intensive care unit.

The build-out will create 36 private patient rooms with amenities to allow parents and guardians to comfortably stay overnight with their critically ill babies receiving highly specialized care at CHOC.

“Every parent wants to stay as close to their baby as possible, especially when the infant needs a high level of medical attention,” said Dr. Vijay Dhar, medical director of CHOC’s NICU. “The expansion to CHOC’s NICU will offer parents and guardians reassurance that they’ll be nearby while their baby receives the highest level of care. As an organization committed to patient- and family-centered care, CHOC is proud to soon offer private rooms to our smallest patients and their parents.”

CHOC NICU Patient Room

Expected to open in summer 2017, the new solo rooms will be housed on the fourth floor of the state-of-the-art Bill Holmes Tower. A potential second phase of construction could add more beds.

Private NICU rooms are setting a new standard for improved patient outcomes. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that infants cared for in single-family rooms weighed more at discharge and gained weight more rapidly than those who received care in an open design. Also, they required fewer medical procedures, had increased attention, and experienced less stress, lethargy and pain. The researchers attributed these findings to increased maternal involvement.

Further, the private-room setting provides the space and privacy that parents need to be more intimately involved in the care of their baby, including breast-feeding and skin-to-skin contact, and parents can stay overnight with their child. In addition, private rooms give staff more access to and interaction with the family and patient.

CHOC’s expanded unit will also feature a multipurpose family room, sibling activity room, additional office space and other enhanced amenities.

CHOC NICU Main Waiting Room

A fundraising campaign by CHOC to raise $22 million is underway to complete the project. To that end, CHOC has received a $100,000 gift in support of the project from Ray Zadjmool and Nazy Fouladirad on behalf of Tevora, an Orange County information security consulting firm. A room in the unit will be named in honor of the gift.

“We are very happy to support CHOC in the work they do for our community, our neighbors, and our kids,” said Zadjmool, Tevora’s chief executive officer.

Other donors who have contributed to the project include the estate of Martha Sheff; the late Margaret Sprague; the estate of Ruth Miller; Credit Union for Kids; the Tinkerbell Guild;  Richard and Bobby Ann Stegemeier; Dr. Sherry Phelan & John H. Phelan, Jr.; Ashly and Brandon Howald; and the estate of Florence Jones.

CHOC NICU Corridor Nurse alcove

For several decades, CHOC has served infants requiring the highest level of care. CHOC’s neonatal services currently offer 67 beds at CHOC Orange and the CHOC Children’s NICU at St. Joseph Hospital, 22 beds at CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital, and a team of premier neonatologists who provide coverage at hospitals throughout Southern California.

A suite of specialized services comprises the CHOC NICU: the Surgical NICU, which provides dedicated care to babies needing or recovering from surgery; the Small Baby Unit, where infants with extremely low birth weights receive coordinated care; the Neurocritical NICU, where babies with neurological problems are cohorted; and the Cardiac NICU, which provides comprehensive care for neonates with congenital heart defects.

CHOC’s NICU was recently named one of the nation’s “top 25” by U.S. News & World Report, reflecting CHOC’s unwavering commitment to the highest standards of patient care and safety.

To learn more about the NICU expansion, visit http://www.choc.org/nicuinitiative.

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Pediatrics Article Highlights Big Outcomes in CHOC’s Small Baby Unit

CHOC Children’s Small Baby Unit (SBU) is improving quality and outcomes in extremely low birth weight (ELBW) infants (babies born at 28 weeks gestation or less and weighing less than 1,000 grams), according to results of an article CHOC physicians and staff published in a recent issue of Pediatrics.

“In recent years, the survival rates for ELBW infants have improved with the latest advances in neonatal intensive care, but many are still released from the hospital with significant challenges, including neurodevelopmental delays and/or chronic medical problems,” said Mindy Morris, DNP, the SBU program coordinator and the article’s co-author. “Our goal was to improve these outcomes by utilizing a dedicated team with expertise in the care of these patients.”

The objective of the CHOC neonatology team was to care for ELBW infants in a single location physically separated from the main Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). This space became the 12-bed SBU, which consisted of four individual patient rooms, two of which are surgical suites, and three four-bed pods. Different from a traditional NICU, this smaller unit allows for a darker, quieter environment that encourages developmentally supportive care. The goal is to create an environment that respects and supports the physiologic needs of the baby to grow and develop after being born so prematurely. Grouping this population also provides parents an opportunity to form strong bonds with other families sharing similar experiences.

Outcomes from the two years before and four years after the SBU’s opening in March 2010 include:

• Reduction in chronic lung disease from 47.5 percent to 35.4 percent. A common condition for premature babies, chronic lung disease can have long-lasting ramifications including re-hospitalization and poor neurodevelopment.

• Rate of hospital-acquired infection decreased from 39.3 percent to 19.4 percent.

• Infants being discharged with growth restriction (combined weight and head circumference, < 10th percentile) decreased from 62.3 percent to 37.3 percent. (These factors are linked to cognitive and physical disabilities.)

• Reduction in laboratory tests (from 224 to 82) and X-rays (from 45 to 22).

Additionally, there was a reduction in illness and complications among infants after leaving the SBU.

Moving forward, the SBU’s goal is to continue to improve patient outcomes, as well as family and staff satisfaction, while also becoming a destination for the care of extremely preterm infants.