When I first started working as a NICU nurse I would wake in the middle of the night, still half asleep but convinced that I had to feed the babies. A lot of the babies I looked after were on hourly or two hourly feeds and some shifts seemed like an endless cycle of feeding.
The preparation of feeds is also time consuming; defrosting frozen breast milk, drawing up the correct volumes into purple oral syringes, writing labels and making sure each feed has been taken out of the fridge about an hour before so that it’s nice and warm to give to the babies.
When you’re having a busy shift and attempting to organise feeds for up to three babies you sometimes end up a bit behind, which results in a baby due feeding and the feed still being in the fridge. I’ve resorted to wrappping the syringe in a sterile bag and putting it in my bra to try and warm it up quickly.
So several nights a week the Northern One was woken up by me insisting that I needed to feed the babies but that I hadn’t even defrosted any milk. I’d then realise that I was in my bed, at home, that it was the middle of the night and that it was probably best if I just went back to sleep.
The first time he found this rather amusing but not so much on subsequent occasions.
These days I don’t usually dream about work.
Usually I dream about trivial, annoying things or things that have happened during the day.
Occasionally I’ll have lovely dreams that leave me feeling warm and glowing long after I wake up.
More often I’ll have bad dreams; nightmares that sometimes cause me to wake in the early hours crying although I don’t always remember why.
I’ve had a dream catcher over my bed for years.
I don’t think it’s working.
Over the last few weeks I’ve dreamed about work more often.
The unit I dream about never looks particularly like the one I work at but I know they’re the same. I don’t recognise most of the staff and the work I do bears little resemblance to the work I do during the day.
A lot of the time I realise that I’m running drastically late or that I haven’t got a clean uniform or that I’m trying to leave the house and everything is just going wrong. All things that have never accually happened.
Normally these dreams are just frustrating; the type that you wake from feeling tired and annoyed.
Recently I’ve been waking feeling sad.
I’ve been dreaming about the babies we lost last week.
I’ve not been reliving those heartbreaking shifts; my dreams are rarely coherent enough for that. I frequently have dreams that are focused around not being able to walk in a straight line or that I’ve fallen asleep at work; they’re that far removed from reality.
But when I’ve dreamt about work I’ll suddenly realise that I recognise the parents that are crying or that I’m standing in the cot space of one of the babies that died.
They’ve all got new babies in them now.
Three more sick children.
Three more frightened families to stand beside the incubators.
Three more little napppies to change.
Three more sets of observations to chart.
Three more tiny hands to hold.
Three more children to look after to the best of our ability, to try and make well so that they can go home to be with their families and lead their lives.
Three more children that may not ever go home.
I can’t think like that. The day that I do, if it ever comes is the day I need to find a new area of nursing or a different career altogether.
The unit can’t run if we don’t stay positive; if we don’t hope.
The parents need us to give them hope; sometimes they’re just not able to find hope on their own.
Whenever I speak to parents, either in person or updating them over the phone I always try to start by telling them the positives; that their little one has tolerated their feeds, that they’ve been really settled or that we’ve been able to stop some of their medications.
Sometimes it only needs to be something small to fan that flame of hope; to help them come to the realisation that some day, in the not too distant future they will be able to take their baby home.
They’ve done thheir first pooey nappy.
They can have their first bottle feed.
We can give them their first bath.
Something that most parents take for granted, that seems quite small to us as nurses but that we know will mean the world to these parents.
These are the things that we have to focus on.
Clearly there are times when we can’t give anymore hope; times when we know that we’ve reached the end and that giving hope would completely false and cruel. But we have to remember that this is not the case for the majority of the babies we care for.
The majority of the time we reunite families.
They send us thank you cards and photographs of their happy, smiling children, sometimes for years after they’ve left the unit. We recieve pictures of children at Christmas, on their birthdays, on their first day of school, wth their new siblings.
Once the parents sent a picture of their premature triplets on their 21st birthday.
Sometimes the parents bring their little ones back to the unit to see us when they come to the hospital for their child’s yearly review.
Children who are now so healthy and growing so fast that we only recognise their names.
We put them all up in the staff room to remind us of why we do this job; why we accept the long hours and the challenges, the tears and the heartbreak.
I don’t know if the other nurses dream like I do.
The morning quickly dissolves the memory of the night and in the light of day it seems silly to even ask.
Maybe talking about it will bring those memories back to the surface, dredging them back from my unconcious.
Or maybe I just don’t want to know the answer.
Do they dream?
Do they sometimes wake knowing that something awful has happened?
That something irreplaceable has been lost?
Or is it just me?