In the United States nearly half a million babies are born preterm (before 37-weeks of pregnancy), have an illness, low birth weight (under 5.5 pounds), a multiple (twin/triplet), a major congenital malformation, or other critical care scenarios when admitted to the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit).
In her critically-acclaimed and engrossing memoir, 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. In addition, Dr. Landers’ memoir describes how the practice of neonatology shaped and influenced her life experience for over thirty-five years. The book describes many technological changes that she witnessed over decades in neonatal medicine and high-risk obstetrics, such as infertility treatments and multiple births.
American Reporter sat down with Dr. Landers to discuss her dramatic career and discuss all the good she has done for babies and their parents over the years.
What is your book, “So Many Babies,” 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. I think that other working mothers, especially career moms, who are trying to figure out how to balance work and mothering, will find my book helpful. I made plenty of mistakes along the way. If I could do it, so can they.
Explain what a neonatologist is and how that differs from a pediatrician?
A neonatologist is an ICU doctor for babies. I trained as a pediatrician and, in addition, completed three additional years of fellowship training. The total was six years of training after medical school. A neonatologist takes care of extremely ill neonates, some small, fragile preterm babies, and babies born with life-threatening birth defects. A neonatologist also provides counsel to parents before the delivery of their extremely preterm baby or their baby with a terrible birth defect.
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.
Tell us about a challenging patient that ended with a positive outcome?
Caroline was a preterm baby whose mother contracted CMV from her toddler son during her third trimester. Caroline was born with congenital CMV, a severe congenital viral infection. She was completely deaf at birth. She also had the CMV virus throughout her body – in her brain, liver, eyes, and lungs. If left untreated she would be devastated and have profound neurological handicaps. Her mother, a young attorney, bravely enrolled her daughter in a phase three NIH drug trial of the medication ganciclovir. Caroline had to receive the drug by IV for eight weeks, during which time doses were adjusted and some complications occurred. The drug treatment was a success and at the end of the eight weeks the CMV was gone from her body. She grew up healthy and strong, with no neurological abnormalities except for deafness. After finishing college and obtaining a master’s degree, she is currently a healthy young adult living and working in a major Texas city. She and her mother both lobbied the Texas legislature for expanded newborn screening to include CMV detection. Caroline works for a company that provides urban development considering the needs of those with disabilities.
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.