Neonatologist Dr. Susan Landers sat down with Digital Journal’s Markos Papadatos to talk about her new book, “So Many Babies: My Life Balancing a Busy Medical Career & Motherhood.”
In the United States, nearly half a million babies are born preterm, have an illness, low birth weight, a multiple, a major congenital malformation, or other critical care scenarios when admitted to the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). Many of these children recover with the help of neonatologists, but every day their babies are in NICU, it can be traumatic times for parents who are confronted with life and death choices for their babies.
In this astounding and engrossing book, “So Many Babies,” neonatologist Susan Landers, MD, shares the stories of the close relationships that NICU staff and parents develop during some of the most distressing times of their sick children’s lives. It’s one of the best doctor-to-parent memoirs I’ve read in a long time and I believe that Dr. Lander’s life work saved numerous babies.
As a neonatologist for over 35 years and a mother to three of her own children, Dr. Landers describes how the full-time practice of neonatology influenced her experience as a mother. In the book, Dr. Landers describes many technological changes that she witnessed over decades in neonatal medicine and high-risk obstetrics.
Her vast experience in the NICU is illustrated by many poignant life-and-death scenarios, including stories about complex, critically ill patients, and their worried parents, each one touching her life.
What is your book about and who is the audience?
“So Many Babies” is about my 30-year-practice as a neonatologist taking care of sick babies in the NICU. My book relates stories about some incredibly special patients – some premature, some multiples, some born with severe birth defects, and their parents – each of whom them touched me in profound ways.
My book relates stories of my learning how to be a good enough mother raising three children of my own while practicing full time. My hope is that my motherhood journey will be reassuring to other working mothers.
What was it like to work in the NICU?
Working in the NICU often felt like working in a whirlwind. It was always exciting, and usually extremely rewarding. Watching babies respond positively to new technologies and treatments was gratifying; however, watching babies die despite full support was heartbreaking, and sometimes felt defeating.
Sometimes the NICU was incredibly stressful, especially in life and death situations, or challenging ethical cases. Sometimes it was tragic and the NICU was a difficult place to work, especially while experiencing the suffering of some of the sickest babies and their parents. Sometimes the NICU environment was noisy and almost nerve-wracking, and other times it was quiet, calm, and subdued. There were always surprises and I enjoyed being part of a NICU team that was ready for anything, even quadruplets on a Sunday evening.
What was the best and conversely most challenging things about being a neonatologist?
For me, the best thing was being an integral part of the babies’ survival and their family’s dreams. I enjoyed getting to know the families, the mothers especially. These parents went through such trauma giving birth to a sick or fragile child, and we grew to know and trust one another over the weeks and months their baby was in the NICU.
I learned many life lessons from these parents. In my book I tell stories of some special patients, most with long-term NICU stays, and their parents, each who touched, motivated, and inspired me.
The most challenging thing was working while physically and mentally exhausted, for example enduring a grueling 24-hour-shift. Working in an environment with constant stress and noise can be nerve wracking. Sometimes when the NICU was busy and monitors were alarming, the stimulation was overwhelming.
As a neonatologist, you learned to multitask since you are pulled in many different directions all at once. Night call in the hospital was challenging not only because of long work hours and sleep deprivation but also because of emergency deliveries of small preterm babies or babies with a severe birth defect. You may be called to jump up from a brief respite nap.
In the book, you discuss how close you become with the parents of your little patients. What is it like for these parents?
Parents go through many highs and lows of emotions when they have a child in the NICU – shock, fear, sadness, doubt. They experience extreme feelings, sometimes joy and sometimes crushing defeat, always depending on their child’s course. Most of them describe this like being on a roller coaster.
Surprisingly, some mothers feel guilty. They secretly feel like the early delivery was somehow their fault. Most often it is not mom’s fault, but some unexpected medical condition, or unexplained preterm labor or rupture of membranes. I loved when the NICU moms confided in me if they felt bad, or sad, or confused. I reassured them that this was the hardest thing they would ever go through in their life.
Watching their baby respond to my treatment, grow, and thrive was gratifying to experience along with them. When mom had pumped her breast milk over weeks and weeks while her baby grew stronger, I especially enjoyed helping her to finally nurse her baby. Sometimes, when I had shepherded along with three or four babies from an early birth to hospital discharge, I felt extremely close to those parents. You feel like part of the family, but not really. And I loved that after discharge, months and years later, parents sent me notes and pictures of their children.
What do you want to tell parents whose child ends up in the NICU?
I tell them that this is the worst thing that will ever happen to them, that feeling overwhelmed is understandable. I advise them to be present in the NICU as much as possible, to touch and talk to their baby, and to ask lot of questions. This may not be possible if they have another child at home or live far away from the hospital.
I suggest that they write things down, especially things they look up on the Internet (which will be confusing). I tell them that this experience will be the most difficult time they ever experience. The helplessness they feel is to be expected, but excruciating, nevertheless. I would tell them to take care of themselves and their marriage while their baby is in the NICU. NICU stays are very traumatic for families and marriages.
“So Many Babies” is available on Amazon.