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Intensive Care Nurse Shares Her Experience Of Working With Newborns During Pandemic

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Health care in the U.S. has gone through so many changes since the start of the coronavirus pandemic - elective surgeries were canceled, more doctor visits are happening over video. In hospitals, some of the changes have to do with protecting the youngest, most fragile patients, as we hear from a health care worker in New York City.

CLAIRE PANKE: So my name is Claire Panke, and I have been a neonatal intensive care nurse for over 30 years. You know, we're primarily there to stabilize the baby, to do whatever care that that child needs because we have premature babies, we have full-term babies, we have post-term babies.

From the moment a baby wheels in, really from the first minute, it's really more than just the baby. It's the whole family. And so we're helping the families through the experience, explaining things to them. There's a lot of equipment here. There's a lot of strange sounds. It's a really intimidating environment for people to walk into.

JASMINE MOADELE: Hi, I'm Jasmine (ph). I'm Joshua's (ph) mom. Josh was born at 29 weeks, 11 weeks early. And we've been in the NICU since the 26th of February.

So we sort of witnessed the transition of the hospital from being, like, a bustling - sort of, like, lots of other types of patients here to just, like, COVID being in full swing. So we're the only visitors that come into the building. And when we're the elevators, we're with people in, like, full, you know, PPE. Like, everybody looks worn down, exhausted. Everyone's talking about how long their day has been. So we're sort of witnessing it, but we're so separate from it at the same time.

PANKE: I think the main thing that most health care workers realize is kind of our baseline. It's hard sometimes to work in health care. It's certainly hard to work in health care right now, but it's much harder to be a patient. And it's much harder to be a family member.

MOADELE: You ready for a bath, kiddo?

PANKE: OK, mom. You're going to help me.

We spend 12 to 13 hours a day with masks on our face. Not only is that somewhat uncomfortable breathing, but there's this, like, barrier when you're talking to a baby who was wired from birth to look at two eyes, a nose and a mouth. They're not wired to look at two eyes, maybe some glasses and a big blue mask. So one of the biggest days for the families and certainly the babies in the NICU is the day they get to go home. It's also really exciting for us as staff members. And I got to speak to one of our moms, Michela (ph), on the day that she was bringing her baby David (ph) home.

MICHELA KING: My husband and I were not allowed to go into the NICU together, as only one parent was allowed at a time. So my husband and I have not been together with our son until today, which is because he's finally getting to come home. So today will be the first day he gets to see our faces and that we will all be together as a family.

PANKE: It's a lot. It's a lot. And that little boy wants to see your face. And you want to show him your face. And how many weeks is he today?

KING: He's 35 1/2. So he's come a long way, and we're grateful to the NICU team at Lenox Hill and everything they've done. Oh, my God. I'm so sorry.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Say goodbye.

PANKE: Bye, my friend. You're ready.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Bye-bye.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Look at you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yay.

PANKE: Congratulations.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you.

PANKE: I wish we could hug you.

SHAPIRO: That's NICU nurse Claire Panke at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. The moms we heard from were Michela King (ph) and Jasmine Moadele (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF ROYKSOPP SONG, "DEAD TO THE WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.