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Nurse manager Rosemary Escott in Wellington’s NICU, surrounded by the hi-tech equipment that’s played a huge part in improving survival rates of premature babies. Photo/Nicola Edmonds

The woman at the helm of Wellington Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit

Wellington Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is a place of ceaseless sound and movement, deep grief and immense joy, tectonic pressure and surprising calm. Among the babies battling in incubators, and parents who can do little but keep watch, highly skilled nurses and doctors move quietly as they manage lifesaving equipment, note observations, reassure and soothe.

At the helm is Rosemary Escott – after four decades of nursing, she’s lost count of the number of lives she’s helped save. Now, as nurse manager, she oversees operations and 160 specialised staff at the unit, which has one of the world’s best survival rates: of the thousand or so tiny patients admitted each year, between 12 and 20 won’t make it home – a much smaller proportion than when Escott began nursing.

One of the small patients in NICU who is now thriving.

“In the 1970s, a baby born at 28 weeks was expected to die. Now a baby born at 25 weeks is expected to live,” she says. “Most born at 24 and even 23 weeks will live, and very often with few, if any, on-going complications.”

That’s down to the skill of medical professionals, of course, and advances in technology – the millions of dollars’ worth of machines that monitor babies’ vital signs and perform life-preserving functions. These include a bioamplifier, which measures oxygen levels in babies’ tissues, and monitors subtle changes in heart rate and blood pressure, by using infrared light shone through the skin.

In the early 2000s, Escott and her colleagues redesigned the unit to group babies by age, rather than by medical requirement as most units do. “Pre-term babies have very different needs to full-term babies,” she says. “This way we can manage the light, sound and rhythms of the room to give babies better neurodevelopmental supportive care.”

Escott and her team love seeing discharged patients come back for clinics, checking off each milestone. “One of the great privileges of being in neonatal care is we’re there at the beginning of a new New Zealander’s life, and if it all goes well, we’re handing them 80-plus years. That’s such a positive thing to do.”

This article was first published in the February 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to our fortnightly email for more great stories.