My story started seven years ago when I graduated from nursing school as a general nurse at the University of Rwanda in 2011. Shortly afterwards, I was appointed by Ministry of Health to work at the Rwanda Military Hospital (RMH) and when I arrived at the hospital I was allocated to work in the Neonatal Unit. It was not my choice to work in the Neonatal Unit. My preference was to work with adults and not neonates, but it was an order and I had to follow it.
I was terrified to work in the neonatal unit! I did not have any prior knowledge or skills to care for neonates. I did not get any neonatal training course during my nursing studies and it was my first time to enter a neonatal unit. So when I entered the neonatal unit, every thing was new to me. There was no identified person in charge of my orientation or an orientation program for new graduates. Instead, I was given the task to read the National Neonatal Guidelines; though I could not understand all the content. The senior nurses on the unit were too busy and did not have time to train me. However, I did my best to learn some neonatal skills from senior nurses, though due to the staff shortage I only had two weeks orienting to the neonatal unit.
Consequently, every single day spent on the neonatal unit was filled of worries, as my lack of neonatal knowledge and skills made me fearful to be alone monitoring the neonates. I hated lunchtimes as someone had to stay on the unit mentoring neonates and I did not like being that one nurse left behind by myself.
After one year of working in the neonatal unit, I had the first opportunity to be trained in neonatal resuscitation, though the expression, “the more you know, the more you fear” suddenly applied to me. After the training, I realized that my skills were harmful to neonates rather than helpful. I was saddened to realize that I had spent the whole year on neonatal unit without knowing how to hold the Ambubag and mask, and to provide positive pressure ventilation to the neonate. I could not stop blaming myself, thinking about all the neonates I had seen dying and perhaps with good skills I may have been able to save them.
A few months later in 2012, I had the opportunity to meet a neonatal nurse from the USA who came as a mentor at RMH as part of the Human Resources for Health (HRH) program. I was most fortunate to work with Vicky Albit a neonatal nurse. It was through her mentorship that enhanced my abilities and confidence to care for neonates. Since then, caring for neonates has become my passion!
My hospital organized a critical care workshop for nurses who wanted to work in neonatal and adult intensive care units, which were new services to the hospital. Selected nurses had intensive care courses and neonatal courses during a three-week period. After the workshop, only five nurses were interested in working in the Neonatal Intensive care unit (NICU) and they were sent for four-weeks training at King Faisal Hospital (KFH), the only hospital in Rwanda with a NICU. For the first time, I saw a neonate on mechanical ventilation. I was afraid to touch the baby, but through help with my mentor, I was taught how to care for a neonate on mechanical ventilation. Even though the clinical placement was brief, I gained the knowledge and skills to care for very sick neonates.
After the clinical placement at KFH, we were ready to open our NICU at RMH. We had more training sessions on medical equipment to use in our NICU including monitors, incubators, radiant warmers, CPAP machines, ventilator machines, syringe pumps, infusions pumps, ABG machine and others. At the opening of our NICU, I was given the hard task of unit manager of the new service and worked with my mentor to create clinical guidelines, protocols and policies. I faced many challenges to mange our new four- bed capacity NICU with shortages of trained staff, and lack of essential consumables and drugs. In addition, it was hard for the hospital administration to understand the needs of the new NICU in terms of nurses, consumables and drugs.
I remember how we prepared to receive our first NICU patient; we were ready with the medical equipment, drugs, nursing team and doctors. After many efforts to save the first patient – who was in septic shock with severe neonatal sepsis – the patient died. I remember how disappointed and discouraged I felt after that first attempt ended in failure. I was wrong to think that by having a NICU we would be able to provide life-saving care to all babies.
After the opening of our NICU, I worked with the neonatal nurse for another two months and I did my best to learn as much as I could, as I was the one now mentoring my colleagues. I could not imagine how we would be able to take care of the very sick neonates without our mentor. I had to take hold and control of everything; supervising and mentoring both the experienced and new nurses on the unit. A few days after our mentor had left RMH, a nurse who was caring for a sick neonate on mechanical ventilation called me, “Chief, please come and help me with the endo-tracheal tube as it is not well fixed and may displace easily.” I responded to the nurse, but I was terrified as I was not good at taping the ETT. But I said to myself, I have done this with my mentor, so I have to do it. I helped the nurse secure the ETT and we did it well. I was forced to do many skills because I was the assigned leader.
Even though I was considered to be the one with knowledge and skills in our NICU, I felt a gap in my training and I wished I could go to university to study neonatology. I had a role model in mind; I wanted to be like Vicky Albit the HRH neonatal nurse that I had met. After two years of leading our NICU, I finally had the opportunity to be in the first cohort of the Master’s of Science of Nursing – neonatology track – at the University of Rwanda.
It was not easy to study in the masters program; as I had to go to school three days a week and work four days a week. Though I was now a bedside nurse taking care of neonates in the NICU and no longer dealing with unit manager responsibilities. It was difficult balancing the demands of school, work, and family, but nothing could stop me! I was truly committed and I wanted to become a neonatal nurse. After two years of working hard, I graduated with a Master’s of Science in Nursing, in the specialty track of Neonatology. I am proud to be a neonatal nurse; I have gained a lot of knowledge and skills from school and the experiences of working in the NICU.
I have returned to the NICU unit manager position at RMH, where we still have the four- bed capacity due to limited medical equipment, with only two working CPAP machines and two ventilator machines. Our NICU is always full and we have a high demand for NICU services.
We face many challenges including lack of trained health care providers. There is only one neonatologist in the country; unfortunately he does not work at RMH, though I wish I could work with him.
The care that we provide to our neonates is limited as many times we have low or lack resources in our clinical settings. I see babies who could have been saved with surgical interventions, if we had more surgical resources. I see babies who died after surgery because of poor post-surgical management, such as lack of total parenteral nutrition. I see many preterm babies who died because they needed advanced therapy like surfactant. I see babies who died because they needed antibiotics that were not available or the family could not afford them. I see babies who died because of limited medical equipment such as ventilators or CPAP machines.
To work and manage a NICU in a resource-limited country is not easy; each day we struggle to give the best care we can to our neonates. The flowing is an example of our on-going situation.
A preterm baby who recovered well in the NICU post CPAP progressed to Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC). All of the NICU team was happy for such an achievement and I was happy to see the mother holding the baby in KMC. The following morning I entered the unit to see the nurses doing resuscitation and I was shocked to see that the baby that they were resuscitating was our KMC baby. I remained calm and quiet, and did not ask how the baby had gone in to respiratory failure. I was busy thinking ahead about the possibility of a ventilator machine, as we only had two and they were being used.
Neonates are amazing. The baby was moving the limbs, but without any spontaneous breathing needed intubation, as well as a ventilator machine. When I looked around I saw the baby’s mother in tears and I remembered how happy she was the previous day holding her baby. Then the on-call pediatrician notified me that King Faisal Hospital, the other hospital with ventilator machines, had no available machines for our KMC baby. The pediatrician advised me to inform the family that we did not have a ventilator machine and that we were going to discontinue positive pressure ventilation. It was a very sad situation to let a baby die because we did not have a ventilator machine. I told the pediatrician that we would find a ventilator machine for our baby. We had two machines in our NICU that were not in use because they were lacking spare parts. I was thinking that with the help of a biomedical technician we could find a working machine. I was trying to assemble the necessary equipment, when I saw the baby’s mother in tears. I did not want to face her, but I did, and I told her that we were doing everything possible to find a ventilator machine that could help her baby breathe. During that time of comfort, she wiped her tears and told me that she trusts us.
While we waited for the biomedical technician to come, I instructed the resident Pediatrician to intubate the baby for better ventilation. I was confident that we would have a working ventilator machine soon. The nurses on the ward alternated doing hand ventilation. After two hours the biomedical technician had repaired one machine and we put the baby on. The baby was doing well on the ventilator machine and all the team was happy. Unfortunately, the machine only worked for about four hours, when a nurse told me, “Your machine crashed, it’s no longer ventilating the baby.” I was very sad as the nurse said, “YOUR machine crashed;” it was my responsibility to find another machine. The remaining machine was missing some spare parts that had been requested, but not yet delivered. In the meantime, I pushed the chief of biomedical services to do all he could to get the missing spare parts; it took more hours to get the spare parts and to repair the machine. Finally, the machine was repaired, and the baby was put on the machine again. The day was full of stress with many ups and downs, but finally ended well with success. The following days, I was happy to see the baby improving and to see the mother joyful once again. The baby had a quick recovery; was discharged from the NICU and is now doing well in KMC.
To be a neonatal nurse is not only delivering routine nursing care to sick neonates, it is going that extra mile (kilometer) and being present for babies and their families in NICU. In my daily activities, I am supportive of families that are worried about the outcome of their sick babies and I grief with families when we cannot save a baby. I feel happy when a baby recovers and graduates from the NICU; by either going to KMC in neonatal unit or going home. I work with a formidable team of nurses and midwives, who have not had the same opportunities as me to study neonatal, but they work hard day and night, and are dedicated to the care of neonates.
They are enthusiastic and willing to learn and I wish that they could all have an advanced neonatal course.
We have many challenges as nurses and midwives trying to establish a professional neonatal career path as it is still under development in Rwanda; there is no clear scope of practice, and even the MScN neonatal degree is not yet recognized by all Rwanda institutions. I am a member of the newly formed Rwanda Association of Neonatal Nurses (RANN). It is a new association, but I have a strong conviction that it will go far to promote a neonatal professional career and will undoubtedly improve neonatal outcomes in Rwanda.
I am working at a national referral hospital in Rwanda, one of the best neonatal units in the country, though our level of care is limited. I know the evidence based practice and I wish I could see and learn from other NICUs, both in resource-limited countries and high-income countries, where they use advanced technologies and practice. I will never be discouraged because I know that one day neonatal care will be a priority in my country and that we will have a high standardized NICU with well-trained health care providers and enough advanced medical equipment to save more lives.
This blog is cross-posted from the COINN website.
This blog is also part of the HNN collection, Telling Your Story: transforming care for small and sick newborns. If you have a story to share about transforming care for small and sick newborns, send a 300-600-word blog about your experience or research to firstname.lastname@example.org.