Inside a NICU: a ‘tough world people are totally unaware of’

NICU nurse Brittany French with a five-month-old who passed away. "This picture just says everything," said his mom Sarah Colgrove. Ashley Trainer-Smas

It’s been almost a year since Sarah Colgrove’s son, Keith Jr., was born at 23 weeks in the Akron Children’s Hospital.

The 40-year-old Ohio woman would spend the next five months of her life in the neonatal intensive-care unit with her little fighter, and all the NICU nurses who never stopped rooting for him.

“They become your friends, your therapist, your educator because you’re thrown into a medical world you’re unfamiliar with,” Colgrove said.

“You’re teetering life and death for five months — at least in my world.”

Colgrove’s son, like most premature babies, had very underdeveloped lungs so had to be hooked up to all kinds of machinery to stay alive.

“When they’re incubated you can’t hear their cry. You can see their cry. And it’s a hard feeling to know you can’t just go in there and pick them up,” his mom said.

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Because of all the tubes and wires, someone would always have to get her preemie out before she could hold him.

A team of four dedicated nurses were assigned to her baby. They hooked him up to a ventilator; poked and prodded his tiny little veins to put in IVs; and helped her give him baths and skin-to-skin contact.

“I had no idea this world existed,” she said. “It’s a tough world… that people are totally unaware of.”

“I thought it’s just cute little babies that just develop with technology. I had no idea of the complications that can come along.”

On good days, they dressed him up in miniature outfits for photo shoots.

Sarah Colgrove, Facebook

Above all, though, the nurses provided a huge source of support — especially on the day it became clear his lungs just weren’t going to grow. Colgrove made the tough decision to let him go on Nov. 2, when doctors told her they were out of options.

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She still gets emotional talking about it.

“At the end of the day these little babies fight so hard to be there. They didn’t get to experience that first bike ride or that walk in the park or feeding a duck, things like that,” she said through tears.

‘He was known as the little superhero’

After her family said their final goodbye to the five-month-old, Colgrove asked his nurses to be in the room as she pulled out his breathing tube.

Two came in on their days off to be there for his final moments. NICU nurse Brittany French was the only one on shift.

“Keith’s passing was definitely tough,” she said. “All of his primary nurses took it hard.”

“Everyone in the unit knew who Keith was since he’d been there for so long. The doctors and nurses would all stop in to say hi. He was known as the little superhero.”

His mom let the 24-year-old hold him after he passed — a moment that was captured in a raw photograph that Colgrove thinks “says everything.”

“You can see the pain, the love. You see all emotion in that picture,” Colgrove said.

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A tribute to nurses

This past week after a rough day, French — who’s been a NICU nurse for three years — posted the photo to Facebook with a touching message that’s been shared 3,000 times.

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“Many people think [being a NICU nurse] means feeding and rocking babies, which occasionally I get the privilege to do… But my job entails so much more,” she wrote.

She said she sometimes cries on her way home, in the shower or as she tries to fall asleep.

“I beat myself up trying to think what we could have done better or different when all medical options have been exhausted.”

She helps resuscitate babies when their hearts stop. And witnesses miracles.

“I get to see little lives come back and beat insurmountable odds. But sometimes I don’t.”

She tells Global News that she definitely thinks about previous patients, whose parents visit the NICU from time to time. The visits can be bittersweet since the NICU is the only home some babies ever know.

A few parents wrote her messages of thanks on the post, crediting her for their child being alive today.

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Bobbie Whetro wrote that her little girl weighed only 895 grams when she was born three months early. She got up to four pounds after five months and was one of the lucky ones who got to go home.

“It takes a special person to do what you do,” Whetro told French.

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The NICU nurse said she feels undeserving of all the messages and attention because all of her co-workers go through the same thing every single day.

She just wrote it (while crying) as a way to cope.

Despite all the tough moments, the NICU nurse says what keep her coming back is knowing she’s able to make a difference to so many families.

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“There are far more ‘happy days’ at work,” French said, because “more babies make it than don’t.”

“Unless you’ve lived it as a parent or NICU staff, you really don’t know what goes on.”

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