The Ichinose family today, home and happy. (Kaiser Permanente)

In 2010, after religiously attending doctor’s appointments and basking in the fact that they were expecting twins, Trav Ichinose’s wife, Juanita, started to go into labor at just 25 weeks. Her labor was stopped for a time at the hospital, until the doctors realized that one of the babies wasn’t moving. A short time later, the family had one stillborn son and another who weighed just one and a half pounds.

The family ended up spending four months in the neonatal intensive care unit at the Kaiser Permanente Downey Medical Center in Southern California.

Their son, Teo, turns 4 years old this month and is “happy, healthy and sweet,” Trav Ichinose says.

But four years on, he and his wife remember their seemingly endless days in the NICU all too well, as can so many parents who have gone through similar situations. Ichinose and the nurses at the NICU shared a few tips recently to help others whose babies may face time in the NICU get through it. It all, Trav Ichinose said, comes down to connecting.

Connect with family and friends and don’t be afraid to ask for their help. A home cooked meal delivered to the hospital can be a welcome respite from cafeteria food, vending machines and fast food.
Connect with other parents on the unit, who are uniquely qualified to commiserate, provide insider tips on navigating the NICU, and will understand what you’re going through when few can.
Connect with NICU staff. NICU nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, social workers and secretaries can all provide great information that will keep you informed, save you time, and make your difficult stay a little less harrowing.
Connect with your environment. Find the hidden nooks and crannies in and near the NICU to steal a quiet moment away from the incessant beeping and alarms of the unit or catch a quick 20-minute catnap. Learn the community and resources in and around the hospital. Locate some park or open space for a breath of fresh air or a few moments of meditation. Identify the nearby amenities of everyday life, because you will practically be living on the unit. Learn where the markets, drug stores, gas stations, convenience stores, banks and restaurants are before you need them. (And keep in mind there’s an app for that.)
• And finally, and most importantly, connect with your premature infant. Don’t be afraid to touch them, hold their hands, cup their little heads. They are more resilient than you initially know and greatly benefit from the touch and voice of parents. Make sure to do that kangaroo care, where there is skin-to-skin bonding time, because that can help make things seem a little normal in the midst of a very abnormal experience. (It calms the infant and parent both.)

Ichinose really connected. In fact, he became part of a NICU parent advisory council. The aim was to help the company make changes so life at the NICU could be a bit easier. One of the biggest problems for parents was that when there was a shift change, they had to leave their children so the nurses could discuss the cases. The parents wanted to be a part of that conversation instead. The hospital listened — and agreed.

“When we did a shift change report, [the parents] had to move out of the area,” explained Marnie Morales, the labor unit co-lead there. “Our team wanted to have the parents more focused so they are a collaborative part of our care.”

Ichinose’s idea to connect — on many levels — when one is stuck in a tough situation like this helped not just his family, but also future families going through the angst-ridden, exhausting process of waiting and watching a truly little one get well in the NICU.

“The communication is really making a difference in the unit,” Morales said.

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