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Bridging the Great Health Divide: Memphis hospital focusing on mental health of parents of NICU babies

Published: Aug. 25, 2021 at 10:30 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Most parents of newborns will tell you that dealing with a sick child can be very stressful.

LeBonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis cared for over 500 babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in 2020, and earlier this month, the hospital announced plans to expand its neonatal intensive care unit by 14 beds to handle the demand.

Patrick Galphin remembers when his now seven-year-old daughter, Millie, was in the NICU.

“Millie just made her arrival a little early. So, where most babies are born at 40 weeks, Millie was born at 25 weeks,” said Galphin.

Millie was a micro-preemie, born 15 weeks early and weighing in at just one pound and 14 ounces. She had a hole in her heart, a ruptured intestine, and lungs that simply didn’t have enough time to develop.

“We were pretty freaked out,” said Galphin. “We had no idea. Millie was our first child and we had no idea what to expect.”

Millie spent the first six months of her life at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital. Le Bonheur is the only level 4 NICU in the region.

“It used to be in the past when we didn’t have enough services at Le Bonheur or the NICU, we would have to send patients outside of Memphis. We basically don’t do it anymore,” said Dr. Ajay Talati, chief of neonatology at Le Bonheur.

Talati says the amount of specialized care being offered in recent years at the hospital has attracted patients from across the country. He says success stories like Millie’s are a testament to the innovative work being done there, not just for the patient, but the parents too.

“That’s kind of unique because we’re thinking outside the box. It’s not the baby that we’re taking care of, it’s the family that we’re taking care of. Sometimes we forget when the baby is in the NICU what’s happening with the family could be very stressful,” said Talati.

Galphin said the time his daughter was in the NICU was a struggle.

“We may not have recognized how much of a struggle it was, at least when we first started going through it,” said Galphin.

Seven years ago, the Galphins remember how helpful staff was in trying to minimize the stress level, offering to counsel and help navigate the financial stresses of life with a sick child.

“You don’t realize you’re not sleeping. You don’t realize you’re not eating and you start doing those other things, kind of just start coming apart at the seams a little bit,” said Galphin.

In February 2020 ,the Le Bonheur NICU social work team created a formal program called the NICU Perinatal Mental Health screening Initiative.

The program screens all mothers who have a baby in the NICU with a stay longer than two weeks using a standardized depression screening tool and offering counseling with a licensed psychologist to those who need it.

Depression can greatly affect parent participation, which could lead to poorer health outcomes for the baby.

Based on a peer-reviewed study of 81 hospitalized preterm infants, more parent holding and skin-to-skin contact with a baby results in better reflex development, infant reflexes, and fewer medical interventions for the baby.

Le Bonheur staff has high hopes that catching problems early could help more babies survive and thrive, like Millie who unlike so many other micro premies, has no developmental issues.

“We contribute a lot to Le Bonheur and the care Millie got the first six months. It really set us up for success for the rest of Millie’s life,” said Galphin.

Le Bonheur says in 2020 alone, its social workers have screened 115 neonatal parents. The hospital says its biggest struggle with the program is removing the cultural stigma of mental health care.

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