John Kelly's Washington

Campaign helps pay for preemies' care at Children's Hospital

Sean and Courtney McNamara's son, Ian, spent six weeks in the NICU at Children's Hospital.
Sean and Courtney McNamara's son, Ian, spent six weeks in the NICU at Children's Hospital. (John Kelly/the Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tara Taylor's colleagues know that when they arrive for a meeting she will already be there. Try as they might to beat her, she's always the first one to take a seat.

"I was born early," she says. "I've been early ever since."

Tara was born at 32 weeks, a fact that must give her some empathy for the tiny patients under her care at Children's National Medical Center, where she's director of neonatal intensive care nursing. The hospital's new neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, opened in May, serving the tiniest humans you'll ever see.

I won't see them today, however. Concerns about the flu mean only parents and medical personnel are allowed through the doors of the NICU, where on this particular morning 56 babies are being cared for, two shy of the unit's capacity.

"It's a lot of babies," Tara says.

Babies that once would never have survived can now be saved. Machines such as the ECMO can serve as a sick newborn's lungs. A practice called total body cooling -- where newborns are placed on chilled pads -- can help recover brain function lost when babies are denied oxygen during birth.

Tara shows me a photograph of a newborn whose body is dwarfed by the adult hand next to it. The baby was born at 23 weeks, and her tiny right fist is wrapped around the grown-up's finger. The fist is too small to encircle the knuckle.

"That's my hand," Tara says. "And I don't have a very big hand."

A poster on the wall near the doors to the NICU reads: "Please keep your voices low so that our babies can rest."

"Most should still be in the womb," Tara explains. "We don't want them exposed to light and noise."

Premature babies are what Tara calls "foot-bracers": They like to have their little feet pushing against something, which is why nurses nestle them in soft nests. In the NICU, the nurses encourage parents to practice "kangaroo care," skin-to-skin contact that helps to regulate breathing and body temperature.

"I wish I could show you some of the babies," she says. "Come back after flu season."

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