Neonatal Therapists: 5 Things to Expect on Your Journey
“Hmmm…maybe you can change it later,” a colleague said to me when I chose the butterfly for NANT’s logo back in 2009. She continued to point to a baby-themed logo instead.
I almost caved in to her perspective.
However, she did not work in the NICU. She thought we ‘just did therapy with babies’. I knew better and so did my mentors and colleagues. We knew we held space for, witnessed, and supported transformation – conceptually and scientifically. And so, the butterfly came to be.
In celebration of all that you know, do, and advocate for, here are 5 of many things to expect on your journey as a neonatal therapist:
The NICU is a vortex of all things transformative. If you choose to enter and stay, you will support the literal transformation of fragile babies and their families as well as yourself. As a clinician, you simply cannot be present to all that joy, grief, birth, loss, hope, despair, laughter, connection, and growth without being changed (for the better).
As a neonatal therapist, your job is to see the baby born at 24 weeks as if he’s in the second grade and help set in motion the foundational developmental skills he’ll need to be as independent and functional as possible at that time. You do this through all avenues of neuroprotection, specialized assessment and ‘intervention’ skills, family education, teamwork, and more. Transformation is your lens. #butterfly
Almost no one will understand what you do for a living, even after you explain and re-explain.
As specially trained physical therapists, occupational therapists, or speech language pathologists you do not put premature or sick babies on tiny treadmills, provide them with job related skills, or work on pronunciation of the letter ‘R’. You do work hard to optimize their short and long-term development primarily through prevention, but that’s a lot to unravel at a dinner party.
It’s actually fun to explain what you do to those who are truly interested. In my experience, this occurs mostly on airplanes, and 99% of the time, the inquirer has a personal ‘NICU-story’ that reframes my entire day.
This does not always come easily. Depending on your NICU’s past experience with therapists, you may walk into a warm inviting space or….not. Yes, the staff is protective. But who is more in need of protection than a tiny one-pound person?
So, expect some tension, some raised eyebrows, some time to prove yourself. But also expect this: once accepted into a place like the NICU, you become family. That fierce protection you initially felt will be extended to include you and vice versa.
I’ll never forget the day I returned to work after a traumatic experience occurred within my little family. My nurse-friends nearly carried me through that day and many after. They slowly brought me back to life with their support, humor, and legendary baked goods. I hope I’ve been half as gracious.
4. A Call to Action
Every single neonatal therapist I know expresses frustration about one thing: the way things currently ARE in their NICU and the way things COULD BE.
By nature and education, you assess your current reality while looking ahead to what is possible (#butterfly). This is how you’re wired. Therefore, on your journey, expect to be called to action – called to lead initiatives, participate in research, build new frameworks for practice, you name it.
You’re also wired to take on too much (just a guess), leaving you exhausted and burned out. Expect to dig deeper and deeper within yourself as a leader so that you become aware of where your unique contributions best match the task at hand, and be willing to let go of the rest. The babies need you to stay healthy to keep advocating for them. (They say THANKS for all you do!)
No matter how hard you try to stay comfortably distant, you become attached to this place. You become attached to baby Emma and Charlie and Donte and the 3 sets of twins that were admitted in the same week last month. And their families. Families that you still get cards from when their ‘babies’ are 18 and going to college, and families you helped when they lost their only baby after years of trying to get pregnant. You feel for the parents whose babies never make it to the NICU.
We pretend this type of pain doesn’t exist in healthcare. We walk into the break room choking back tears. We go home and kiss our children.
But mostly, we develop profound gratitude for what we have. Is there any other sane response?
(We are also grateful for food. It’s inexplicable really. It’s as if we have lost access to a fully stocked cafeteria or other means of sustenance. If someone orders take-out or brings in bagels for breakfast it’s as if we’ve been rescued from a desolate island, 100% of the time.)
If you continue to say yes to working in the NICU, expect to be transformed even as you support transformation.
Expect to be challenged.
Expect to feel privileged to do the work.
And every September, expect to be celebrated for doing it.
Colleagues – We are honored and humbled to serve you and your work in the world. Thank you for supporting and deeply caring about all those beautiful butterflies.