NICU graduate grows up to become NICU caregiver


From time to time, the nurses in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Niswonger Children’s Hospital are treated to a visit from patients who have “graduated” from the NICU and grown into bouncy, vivacious toddlers. Occasionally, they come back to visit again when they are older. But rarely do those patients come back to the NICU to stay.

Brianna Mullins was one of those tiny, fragile infants in the NICU in 1987. One of her nurses was Diana Harrison, a recent nursing school graduate who had been working in the NICU for one year. “Brianna had a tough start in life, but it was a joy to care for her and to help her family through the ups and downs of the NICU experience,” said Diana. “She was adorable and touched the hearts of all the nurses who cared for her.”

Born at just 28 weeks gestation and weighing a frail 2 pounds 8 ounces, Brianna had to face many challenges before she could go home with her family. Her lungs were too immature to allow her to breathe on her own, so a ventilator had to breathe for her. She needed surgery to repair a hole in her heart. She even suffered a severe brain hemorrhage because her delicate blood vessels just weren’t ready for the strain of survival outside the womb.

“Without the NICU team and the prayers and hope that they gave me and my family, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Brianna.

Brianna’s family kept in touch with the nurse manager of the NICU as Brianna grew up and brought her to several NICU reunion events.

“I saw her at age 2 at a reunion, and she looked great,” recalls Diana. “She seemed to have no long-term complications from her rocky start, and she lit up the room with her smile.”

But that wasn’t the last time Diana would see her brave little friend. When Brianna was in college, she felt called to volunteer at the hospital that had saved her life, so she got involved in Niswonger’s cuddler program. Cuddlers provide the one-on-one bonding time that is so important for infant development but is often not feasible for working parents with a child in long-term intensive care. “Imagine how I felt when my manager brought her through the unit in 2007 and introduced her,” said Diana. “It made me realize how appreciative she was of where she came from and how far she had come. Her parents had taught her to be respectful and appreciative of those of us who took care of her in those critical situations.”

At first, Brianna was surprised to learn that Diana remembered caring for her all those years ago. But once she started getting to know the babies and families in the NICU, she realized how easy it is to become attached.

“When you work 12-hour shifts, you sometimes spend more time with your patients than you spend waking hours with your family,” said Diana. “When the patients leave here, you don’t just forget about them.”

About a year later, Brianna became an official team member in the NICU when she was hired by the hospital as a patient care partner.

“Pretty much from day one when people started asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I want to be a NICU nurse and give back to those families. I want to give other families hope to know that their baby is in good hands,” she said.

Today, Brianna and Diana work side by side taking care of the tiniest patients at Niswonger Children’s Hospital.

“When I see Brianna at work in the NICU today, I can still picture her as that helpless baby lying in the isolette,” Diana said. “It’s a joy to see how far she’s come. I think I have the greatest job in the world, because I get to see miracles every day.”
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