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.
“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.”