The Fragile, Life-Giving Art of Being a NICU Nurse


Posted Sun, Mar 24, 2013


ANOTHER DAY AT THE OFFICE: Katie Hepp cares for a premature baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at University of Colorado Hospital. [Photo by Aaron Lambert]

DENVER “Being a nurse for babies is the most life-giving type of work. A baby is the future of a family. When you care for a baby, you care for the future of their family.”

This sentiment shared by Neonatal Intensive Care Unit nurse Katie Hepp may seem scary and pressure-filled to many, but for Hepp, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Being a nurse of a baby in the NICU combines the critical care of an intensive care unit, with the mushy-gushy care of a sweet newborn. It is the perfect balance to hard work and sweetness,” Hepp says.

Ever since she was a little girl, Hepp knew she was destined to become a nurse. Nurses have been prevalent in Hepp’s family. She followed in her mother’s and grandmother’s footsteps. . Growing up, Hepp was always fascinated by her mother’s stories of patients and the families who she had helped.

“Even as a little girl, I can remember playing with little baby dolls and pretending they were sick and I was taking care of them,” Hepp says.

As Hepp progressed through school, she discovered she was interested in her science and biology classes, which eventually influenced her decision to enroll in the nursing program at University of Northern Colorado in 2008.

Hepp was accepted into the nurse residency program at University of Colorado Hospital, where she was specifically trained in neonatal intensive care nursing. Hepp graduated from UNC in 2010 with her Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing, and landed a job at the UCH NICU shortly after graduation, where she has been working for nearly three years.

“When I made the decision to go to nursing school for the first time in my life, I felt like I was finally where I was meant to be, doing what I was made for,” Hepp says. “Then once I found my way into the NICU, I knew I would be here for the rest of my life.”

NICU nurses typically work 12-hour shifts, and they are required to be on duty around the clock. When Hepp begins her shift, she receives a report from the previous nurse about the babies she’ll be taking care of that day, the number of which range from 1 to 3, depending on acuity.

Throughout the course of the day, the babies receive “care times” every 3-4 hours, during which Hepp feeds, changes and gives full medical assessment to the infants. Parents are welcome to come for care time and help take care of their babies, as well as hold them for as long as possible, Hepp says.

The UCH NICU also allows its nurses to choose “primary” babies, which means the nurse consistently takes care of a specific baby on her shifts. Hepp says this promotes consistency of care within the unit.

It takes a very loving and patient person to be a NICU nurse, Hepp says. It also takes a detail-oriented person.

“A good NICU nurse pays extremely close attention to detail, yet makes times for the little things, such as finding a cute outfit or blanket to put the baby in, or allowing extra time to help a new mom breastfeed her baby,” Hepp says.

Being a NICU nurse is not always joyous. Sometimes, the reality of the fragility of life sets in, and Hepp must endure the pain of losing a child alongside the family.

“It is so easy to put your whole heart into these sweet tiny lives, and when a life is lost, helping the family through that is heartbreaking,” Hepp says.

Hepp is not alone during these trying times. Hepp and her fellow NICU nurses act as a support system to one another, creating a special bond between them that is not shared by anyone else.

“The bond that I share with my co-workers is unending,” Hepp says. “We understand each other and the feelings that go through your heart during a shift. We help each other through the hard times, and laugh together during the good times.”

Hepp has seen things in the NICU that most people will never see in their life, which has had a profound impact on her outlook on life. She distinctly remembers a 26-week-old baby girl she took care of who weighed just 11 ounces.

“She was the smallest baby I have ever taken care of. As I cared for her that night, I could see so much purpose to her little life, and it made me ponder the meaning of life and love,” Hepp says. “She has such purpose to her life; no matter how long or short it is, no matter how successful she will be in the future, there is meaning to her existence, and she is greatly loved.”

Even alongside the extremely difficult times, Hepp says the little joys are why she loves her job, and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“Seeing the look on a mama’s face when she gets to hold her baby for the first time, with big tears running down her cheeks, makes it all worth it,” Hepp says.

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About Aaron Lambert

I am a convergent journalism major in my senior year at MSU Denver. I was born and raised a native here in Colorado, and I currently live in Westminster, CO with my wife and pup. I am an avid lover of music, specifically heavy/extreme metal, and I regularly scribble words about such topics over at the underground metal blog Heavy Blog Is Heavy.

View all posts by Aaron Lambert

4 Responses to “The Fragile, Life-Giving Art of Being a NICU Nurse”

  1. Davy Says:

    Nice heart-warming stroy. I like your headline and the quotes that you use. Great job.


  2. Emily Pennetti Says:

    Great story. Very loving story


  3. Jen Sasser Says:

    I like that you led with a quote. This is a very heart-warming story. Well done!


  4. Ashley Hattle Says:

    What a wonderful feel good story. It’s dis-heartening to see babies on the brink but nice to know their are dedicated women like Katie Hepp out there.


Leave a Reply to Ashley Hattle