Neonatal nursing provides care for the tiniest and most vulnerable infants, and the nurses in this specialty are celebrated this week by the National Association of Neonatal Nurses (NANN) and other organizations marking this year’s National Neonatal Nurses Week.
NANN member Julie E. Williams DNP, CRNP, NNP-BC, is a lead nurse practitioner in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at The Johns Hopkins Hospital Bloomberg Children Center and found neonatal nursing after practicing for many years in med-surg nursing with an adult population.
When she took some time off to raise her family, Williams decided she was happy with nursing, but not fulfilled with the med-surg role. She decided to try something entirely different and was honest about what would be best for her personally as well as professionally. Caring for a pediatric population was appealing, but Williams knew she would see her own children in her patients and wanted to maintain separation from that age bracket. Neonatal nursing was a good age bracket to alleviate that concerns.
Three months into orientation as a neonatal nurse, Williams was all in. “I thought, ‘This is it. This is where I need to be,'” she says. “It was a real ah-ha moment. I have never experienced that before.”
Williams, who has been a nurse for 24 years and a nurse practitioner for 10, says she grew up with her parents talking about nursing as a great career, but it wasn’t something originally on her radar. “Once I got into it, my passion, goals, and thoughts on it all changed.” Williams current role has her spending half of her time managing a team of 20 nurse practitioners and half of her time spent clinically managing patients. “That means I am responsible for developing a team and still responsible for the care of babies and their families.”
As a nurse, Williams says her goals have always focused on helping people attain success and self-fulfillment. In her neonatal nursing role, working with babies allows her to continue working toward to that goal. “Whenever I have a patient, my goal is to help that patient become the best version of themselves they can be and then we can reunite them with their family.”
Saying she feels constantly rejuvenated by her work in neonatal nursing, Williams feels a strong connection with the families she works with. “Mostly we think of childbirth and pregnancy as a joyous time, and we don’t know how complicated it can be,” she says.
When things don’t go as expected or as planned, the experience is difficult. “Being able to support someone around this process and give them the best version of their child is such a responsibility,” she says. Williams says she has learned how to meet the families and the babies where they are and help them feel comfortable when their child is in intensive care. And while nursing skills in the NICU must be excellent, Williams says the skills required to work with families aren’t necessary clinical but are heavily rooted in empathy.
“These infants are the future and the parents are so invested in these children,” Williams says. She helps them understand they have experienced a loss of their expectation of and hope for a perfect or even a typical pregnancy and birth and a shift is necessary. Very premature infants might require extra care and require extra vigilance, but that doesn’t mean the child will be unable to participate in life. “You just have to pivot,” she says.
And Williams is buoyed by the advances in neonatal care and in neonatal nursing. In addition to the technology and medical care advances, “the focus on the whole baby has improved so much,” she says. Even understanding the downstream impacts of how a baby in NICU is positioned gives the healthcare team a deeper understanding of the whole picture of care.
“I am always talking about how I love what I do,” says Williams. “Neonatal nursing is rewarding. It’s a rollercoaster but well worth it.”