Braylen Hallihan has a jungle safari-themed nursery ready and waiting for him at home.
Braylen was born full-term on Feb. 24, but due to complications from seizures, a stroke and a brain hemmorrhage, he’s spent the first few weeks of his life as a patient in the SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). His parents, Makinzie Spease and Noah Hallihan of Mount Vernon, Illinois, are with him 24/7, they said.
Because of an EEG monitor on Braylen’s head, Spease and Hallihan weren’t able to hold him for a few days. When Hallihan was finally able to snuggle him close, it was a special feeling for the new father.
“It felt like I had the whole world in my arms,” he said.
Spease and Hallihan are able to stay with Braylen in his private room, which the Cardinal Glennon Children’s NICU offers for each of its patients.
The Cardinal Glennon Children’s NICU is the only Level IV NICU of the SSM Health hospitals in the St. Louis region. As a Level IV NICU, it offers comprehensive and specialty care for babies born as young as 22 weeks, including surgeries and the use of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, a heart-lung bypass machine.
For family members who aren’t able to visit the baby in person — or parents who want to check in at any hour — each NICU bed is equipped with a “NicView” camera that provides a live video feed through an online portal.
NICU babies receive care not just from doctors and nurses but also physical therapists, occupational therapists, child life specialists and music therapists. Since parents are encouraged to be present with their babies as much as possible, the care team works with them, too, preparing them to take care of their child after being discharged, keeping an eye out for possible symptoms and offering referrals for things like postpartum depression care, and even offering opportunities for community like a “Ukuleles for Dads” group.
The average stay for a baby in the Cardinal Glennon NICU is around a month, said Kim Pacatte, NICU nurse manager. That long stay allows the care team — especially the nurses — to get to know each baby and family well.
“If you think about other hospital units, patients come in and they’re there a day, three days,” Pacatte said. “If somebody is hospitalized a week, that’s a long time. But that’s not the case with us.”
Josie Collett, a nurse in the Cardinal Glennon NICU for six years, values that chance to develop relationships with her patients and their families.
“We really see the full spectrum of human emotions,” Collett said. "The best times are when you’re sending a kid home. We bond with them, and we bond with the family. So seeing them get out of here after sometimes up to a year is definitely rewarding.”
The support of her co-workers helps get her through the challenging days, as does the joy found in her patients’ progress and little wins.
“One of my favorite things, which I’m going to do later today, is getting a baby up for the first time for a mom or a dad,” Collett said. “This little baby weighs less than two pounds, and to be able to get them up and have some skin-to-skin with a parent and see that bond, see them click — that’s extremely rewarding.”
Collett’s Catholic faith is with her as she cares for God’s children, she said.
“If you didn’t have faith, this would be very hard,” she said. “You have to look to God to make sense of things sometimes. There are truly miracles that happen here.”
The love and care shown by the NICU nurses has helped Heather Denny immensely during her son Calvin’s stay in the NICU, Denny said. Calvin has been a NICU patient since he was born in early September, requiring surgery to remove parts of his intestines and place a central line for nutrition.
“It’s been very challenging, but we still have some great days, and I attribute that to his amazing nurses,” Denny said. “They’re just incredible, and they’ve become our friends.”
Like any other 6-month-old, Calvin is working on sitting up unassisted, teething and offering up smiles for his loving fans. He was baptized in the hospital, and God has been with the family every day in the NICU, Denny said.
“I’m just really thankful that I have a solid, Christian faith foundation — I don’t know how I could do this if I didn’t,” Denny said. “I don’t feel like my faith has been shaken through this. I feel like I’ve been standing upon it.”