NICU graduation is the icing on the cake for families heading home


For parents of infants who require extra care after birth, experiences in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) can be filled with the anxiety and stress of frequent setbacks. Here's how one hospital helps parents mark the transition to home and bring a joyful closure to the NICU experience.

For parents of infants who require extra care after birth, experiences in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) can be filled with the anxiety and stress of frequent setbacks.

Discharge to home can bring feelings of joy, but also apprehension at caring for an infant who has required such intense medical intervention at the start of life.

Melissa Jordan, Photo Credit: CaroMont Health

To help parents mark the transition to home and bring a joyful closure to the NICU experience, Melissa Jordan, a NICU nurse at CaroMont Health, Gastonia, North Carolina, decided to honor her tiny patients’ departure with a special celebration.

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“As the nurse, you see the ups and downs that the parent experiences every single day. So for me, it was about doing something special for the baby and the family to make the day of discharge extra special,” Jordan says.

Jordan has been a nurse for 9 years, the last 3 spent in the NICU. Her patients stay in the NICU for anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months. It was a patient on the longer end of that range that inspired her to initiate a practice that has gone on to become a standard in her unit.

“It started with 1 particular family that had been in the NICU for about 2 months. The family brought him a onesie that said ‘NICU grad.’ I went home that day and thought it would be nice to make it even more special,” Jordan says. After combing the Internet for ideas, Jordan returned to work the next day armed with supplies for a celebration. She hung banners and made a graduation cap. “We went in singing and dancing and gave him his graduation hat,” Jordan says. “And the parents loved it.”

Photo Credit: CaroMont Health

It’s been about 8 months since that first celebration, and Jordan and her unit have now celebrated 26 NICU graduates. They’ve enlisted the help of a photographer, Bella Baby Photography, which takes free graduation pictures for families at the celebration. Although Jordan works in a smaller, level 3 NICU with an average of 9 patients each day, the involvement of the staff and response from families has been huge.

“I put everyone to work making graduation hats now,” Jordan says. “The parents love it. It’s even gotten bigger than what it was. Parents are bringing other children in now that it’s not flu season. Whole families have been coming. The kids that do come will get up and dance. They were smiling just as much as the parents were.”

Jordan says she’ll be sad when winter comes and the NICU has to become more restrictive to larger groups, but says the ceremonies are still rewarding. One parent put it perfectly, she says, stating that the celebrations were a way of transitioning the babies to a regular life.

“In the NICU, everything is far from normal. What you normally expect when you go in to give birth to your baby doesn’t happen,” Jordan says. “In the NICU, every day you’re walking out of the hospital without your baby.”

The first graduate was heading home on oxygen and a monitor, and Jordan says many parents are worried about what life at home will be like with their delicate babies.

Photo Credit: CaroMont Health

“They are extra scared and extra nervous, but that’s what really inspired me to want to put the day at ease,” she says.

The unit hopes to create a wall displaying photos from the graduation ceremonies, with plans to create the wall near the entrance to the NICU to give parents just starting out their journey a sense of hope.

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Families have responded with such gratitude to the program, sending food and gifts to the nursing staff even months after leaving the NICU, says Dallas Paddon Butler, public relations manager for CaroMont Health.

Photo Credit: CaroMont Health

“Part of our message in the birthplace and NICU is our family-centered care,” Butler says. “With families being there for so long, we become an extension of that family. It gives them that sense of normalcy.”

For parents, the celebrations have been unforgettable. “We loved it! It really made us feel like all of our sweet boy’s hard work had paid off,” according to a statement supplied by Butler with comments from NICU parents Shawn and Erica Sutton. “He had accomplished so much while we were there and the graduation cap allowed us to celebrate those accomplishments and milestone.”

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