‘It’s so humbling to care for them’: a look behind the scenes at Ninewells premature baby unit

A baby’s tiny hand grips on to the finger of one of the medical staff at Ninewells.

Day in, day out, the consultants at Ninewells Hospital’s neonatal unit care for some of Tayside’s tiniest tots born weeks — if not months — earlier than expected.

The arrival of a newborn is supposed to be the most joyous and exciting time for parents, but having a premature baby can turn the excitement into stress.

The Tele was given a tour of the ward ahead of World Prematurity Day on November 17.

Dr Shetty Bhushan is one of the consultants at the ward, which cared for 566 babies last year.

Of those, 19 weighed less than a kilo (2lbs 2oz) — under a third of the average birth weight for a healthy baby born between 37 and 40 weeks.

Dr Shetty Bhushan with a premature baby.

“It’s very humbling to take care of these babies,” Dr Bhushan said.

“Families share their first scan pictures and things when they find out they are going to have a child.

“But if a baby is born early, it can be the most stressful time, and one parents haven’t planned for.

“Parents always expect their babies to be born on time — but it doesn’t always happen. And it can be a huge shock.”

Every day counts when a baby is born premature.

If a baby is born eight weeks early, it can take as long as a year to catch up with the development of a baby born around their due date.

Families are always encouraged to stay around the ward for as long as they want, so they are involved with their baby’s growth from day one.

Dr Bhushan continued: “The main thing is that we support the babies right from birth to keep them stable.

“We’re trying to replicate (the conditions of the womb) but we can never replicate that exactly. We try to give them the best start.”

Family-centred care plays an important part in a premature baby’s development.

Babies don’t learn to breathe by themselves until around 34 weeks, so being born before that can present problems with tasks such as feeding.

Nurses Jenna Culloch and Karyn Cooper

An early birth can also upset a mother’s hormonal balance, meaning the hospital occasionally relies on breast milk from a central bank in Glasgow, a resource Dr Bhushan says he is “very grateful” for.

However, he accepts that it is not possible for all little lives to be saved.

Nationwide figures on premature births shows that if a baby is born at 25 weeks, one in four will not survive long-term. That rises to one in three if it is born at 24 weeks and to more than two in three if born at 23 weeks.

Just one in every 100 babies born at 21 weeks survives.

“Parents feel guilty about premature births but I always tell them they shouldn’t.

“But we have to keep their expectations realistic — there are times when a baby can deteriorate,” said Dr Bhushan.

However, he added he “couldn’t ask for a better team” of nurses, consultants and experts who help to keep the neonatal ward running like clockwork.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s annual Neonatal Audit Programme shows that Ninewells leads the way in several areas when it comes to premature baby care.

More mothers are given magnesium sulphate in the 24 hours before they have a premature baby than elsewhere in the country, which can massively improve the brain development of a pre-term child.

Dr Bhushan said: “Our nurses are incredible, spending all of their time supporting babies and their families.”


Mum owes kids’ lives to city neonatal ward

Kerry and husband Adam with children Joel and Willow.

Mum-of-two Kerry Larmour said she owes the lives of her two children to the teams on the neonatal ward.

Kerry, 33, from Fairmuir, gave birth to son Joel, now seven, at 27 weeks.

Daughter Willow followed two years ago, weighing just 1lb 3oz, at 26 weeks.

Both were born exactly 103 days before their original due date.

Kerry told the Tele that she couldn’t praise the staff at Ninewells any higher.

She said: “The staff first time around were just amazing — I work for the NHS myself so I know how difficult it can be sometimes. But not once did I think I was a burden to them.

“They were always there to answer any questions too — a shoulder to cry on, someone to laugh with — they were there, with me, 100%.”

Kerry, who works at the Glenlaw House centre for disabled children at Kings Cross Hospital, said: “I can’t stress enough how little a 1lb baby is and you don’t realise that until you see them. You wonder how that little baby can survive.

“Second time around, I sort of knew what to expect. The one thing that stayed the same was the atmosphere of the ward. All the parents are scared, but the staff are very inviting and very professional.”

She added that she owed her own life to Dr Tony Nicoll, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, after he spotted a large bleed after she gave birth by caesarean.

Kerry said: “He’s a fantastic man and I owe him everything. He really cares. it isn’t just a job to him.”

Kerry said she would never forget what the ward had done for her.

“We are eternally grateful for the incredible care that both my children received — the staff will always hold a special place in my heart.”