Neonatal intensive care nurse Donna Alessi can think back on the early days of her 45-year career in Buffalo and recall the helplessness of holding dying babies.
“It was sad,” she said. “I remember sitting there – and it would be any of us – with a baby who had a heartbeat, and there was nothing we could do. Now we save them. They go to school. They go to college.”
She ticked off three of the many medical milestones that helped make it so:
Improvements in incubators –called Isolettes – that can meticulously regulate conditions most comforting to a baby born sick, prematurely, or both.
Ventilators that can keep a baby’s tiny lungs at work and help spur healthy growth.
New drugs developed in the 1990s to help prevent and treat respiratory distress syndrome in premature and newborn infants. One of the most popular, Infasurf, was created at an Amherst startup company led by Dr. Edmund Egan, a pediatrics professor at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Alessi – the longest-serving employee at Women & Children's Hospital – and her colleagues will reach another milestone this weekend as they move into the new $270 million John R. Oishei Children's Hospital. She will work in the new Children’s Guild Foundation Neonatal Intensive Care Unit
The unit, roughly the size of a football field, takes up the fourth floor of the 12-story medical center, and is divided into three self-contained patient care "neighborhoods." Each has a designated team of nurses and physicians. A fourth section, the family neighborhood, includes lockers, restrooms and laundry facilities as well as a waiting room overlooking downtown.
The NICU features 48 private rooms, five doubles, and a six-bed pod for twins and multiple deliveries. Rooms are equipped to more manageably accommodate patient surgeries, if needed, and with a couch that pulls out into a bed so loved ones can stay overnight.
"One nice thing about it is that all the patient rooms are on the outside of the building so there are beautiful windows for patients and families," Alessi said.
Nurses including Alessi will be stationed at small work stations that overlook two rooms at a time. They will work in pairs, generally with two patients at a time.
"People ask me, 'Why don't you retire, you're going to be 65?' " Alessi said. "I'm not ready to leave. I still love my job."
Alessi grew up in Hamburg, started nursing school during her senior year at Frontier High and graduated as a licensed practical nurse in 1972. She went to work six weeks later in the NICU at Women & Children's and completed her registered nurse training at Erie Community College during her early years on the job.
"I took a lot of electives," she said. "I thought I was going to go on but I like what I do. I don't want to be in charge, don't want to be in management, don't want to be in administration. I like bedside nursing."
She has two sons, Lawrence James and Nicholas Alessi, and two grandsons, Dominic, 5, Matteo, 1. Her husband, Lawrence Joseph Alessi, a laborer, died eight years ago of lymphoma.
Q. What struck you when you first laid eyes on the new hospital?
How beautiful the lobby is and how spacious the floors are. It's really overwhelming. With all the walking I'm going to do, it's going to make me thin – hopefully.
Where I started my career was maybe a quarter the size of the NICU floor, maybe less. Here I was with my nursing cap thinking, "This is the cat's meow." When we moved to the three rooms – A, B and C – we were more excited because the attendings brought us a microwave. I was pregnant at the time with my now-37-year-old son. We just thought that was the grandest thing.
Q. You've been through the experience of working with families thousands of times. What have you learned about what they need most?
Somebody to listen, just to be there. To hold their hand, give them a hug. You never think when you have a baby, even if it's sick, that you're not going to be able to take it home.
Q. Is there a message that you have found resonates with parents who have to come into the NICU unexpectedly and are hoping for the best, but also those who have lost a baby?
To say, "I will do everything to make it right; I can only do so much, but I will do whatever I can." We're all here for them.
Q. How have you learned to cope?
I pray, and I believe that everybody has a gift in life and you have to follow your dream using that gift.
Q. What's the most exciting addition for you at the new hospital?
I can go on and on. It's bigger, better. It's new and we're going to have individual rooms so that the parents can come in and stay with their babies. This gives them privacy. Right now, we're in pods. If you have four or six babies in a pod, and you have all the parents in there, they could be looking at another baby that's sicker and get anxious. You're watching everything. Now your focus is your own room. You can stay overnight. It's their room with their baby. I'm taking care of twins right now and we have three rooms in the new hospital that are set up just for twins. They will be in one of them, which will be nice.
Q. You say one unwelcome change in recent years has been the growing number of babies born addicted to drugs.
Many babies. It can be terrible. They can be sound asleep and wake up suddenly and it gets emotional. You try to put them where it's quiet, so the new rooms will be perfect. For the babies going through withdrawal … a lot of them tend to be irritable. You try to swaddle them, make them feel very secure. One of the nurses runs a team of nurses that specializes in taking care of these babies.
Q. How long can babies stay?
Right now I'm taking care of a set of twins delivered by a mom who was 25 weeks and 5 days (pregnant). They're 75 days old. I always say, "Plan on taking your baby home around your due date. If your baby goes home before that, it's a gift."
We've had some kids come back. The hospital tries to send babies to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit but right now we have two babies on ventilators that are six months old because the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit is always busy. I love what I do and love my job. I have more respect for the people that work in the PICU and when I'm down there I tell them that. My babies have never been home and it's great to send them home but when you go into the PICU, those babies have been home. They've walked. They've talked. When little kids come in with brain tumors and car accidents, and those nurses sit at those bedsides with those parents, that's where I have the utmost respect for nurses.
Q. How many babies have you cared for over 45 years?
Thousands. My oldest primary patient that I took care of was born six weeks early and his mom had a brain aneurysm and died when he was three days old. She never got a chance to see her baby grow up. The grandmother helped the dad raise him and his 2-year-old sister, and for years I helped the grandmother before I went in for my 3 to 11 p.m. shift. My husband and I got invited to his wedding and he had us sit with the immediate family. I said to my husband, "That's what it's all about." One little girl I cared for is in first grade now. She weighed 1 pound, 4 ounces when she was born at 24 weeks. I went to her mom's wedding and sat with the immediate family. She got married two years ago to the dad; the little girl was 4 and was the mom's flower girl.
Q. What are the major challenges these days?
Learning everything. They do very well teaching us when anything is new. We've already spent four-hour shifts for five days in the new unit. The change will be a challenge. You're going to be in individual rooms. When you work in a pod, you can always have someone where you can just say, "Can you help me? I need help over here." Now, we're going to have to use the phone (headset system) or computer commands. This is going to be great for the families but a bit more challenging for the nurses. I think as time goes on, we're going to love individual rooms.
Q. There has been talk for years about moving Children’s. What made it happen this time around?
When they talked about this more than 10 years ago, none of us wanted to go. I remember doing the march to save the hospital. Now, it's "Let's move it. This is bigger and better." We're excited about everything being new. It's a big change. It's good for the families. I think the biggest issue with the majority of the staff is our parking. That is a big issue. I was Number 5 in the hospital to get a parking pass but they want you to take rapid transit.
Q. Is there anything special you're going to leave behind at Women & Children's?
A lot of memories and the fact that the Children's hospital that originated in Buffalo is gone. ... I'll be there the day they knock that building down. I'll be crying. This move is good for Buffalo but it's still sad when you know that where you started will be gone.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon