Kitchener NICU nurse cares for over 1500 high-risk babies a year

By Natasha McKenty

Her commute, to and from McMaster Children’s Hospital, allows time to decompress from 12-hour shifts in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

She’s a Charge Nurse, which essentially means she’s in charge of the busy unit. Part of the admission team for high-risk deliveries, Natalia Ludwig, is on the PICC team because she has an added skillset; inserting central lines. On top of this, she is also a part of the hospital’s Neonatal Transport team.

As a Transport Nurse, her job is to go out to a baby, in a community hospital, stabilize and then transfer them – so they can receive specialized care. A typical shift bears witness to both joy and sorrow. The first time she resuscitated a baby, whose heart monitor read zero, her hands were shaking.

A commonality for those who are compassionate, Ludwig has a complex past. Born in Medellin, Colombia, she remembers a childhood filled with music, dancing and family gatherings – but also turmoil. She recalls seeing armed police posted on doorsteps. “My mom and dad tried to shield us from the violence,” she says.

Her father left, for Canada, in 1988 – in search of a better future for his two daughters. They would follow him, the following year. She remembers having to choose one toy, the rest would have to stay behind. “We chose our baby dolls,” she recalls – a fitting choice for the little girl who would find her passion bringing high-risk babies into the world.

They left their home with a suitcase and strategically packed box. She remembers her mom’s fear while walking through the airport. “Hold on to my belt and don’t let go, she told us.”

When asked what drew her to nursing, Ludwig says, her curiosity developed after visits to the hospital, during her childhood. Ludwig’s sister would follow a similar path – as a first responder, eventually working with the Halton Tactical team (SWAT).

A graduate of McMaster University, with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, she worked towards specializing in Neonatal/Perinatal care.

Doctors know her as “gatekeeper” of her unit.

Shifts begin with a report of the babies under her care – usually 63 infants. “We work together, with the Leadership and Medical team, to ensure that all babies in the region are in the right bed at the right time’” says Ludwig.

She has witnessed brand new eyes open for the first time and weary ones close for the last time. “The first time I saw a tiny 400 gm baby – the tiniest little human I had ever seen; her eyes were fused, her skin transparent, but every tiny bit of her was there. She was beautiful.”

A career in the NICU comes with an emotional toll, especially when providing end of life care. “When all your efforts fail to save a baby, it is hard to take.” She says she uses breathing and journaling to help channel her emotions.

She still finds herself in awe of medical technology, “like the advances in ventilation support, where clinical trials reveal new treatment modalities or better understanding of the physiology of the neonate – so that we can better the outcomes of our babies.”

She says it’s about being a good communicator and showing empathy to families. “It’s a job I never take for granted and one that motivates me to do better because there are many more babies to come, who deserve the best.”

October 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day.

Ludwig says when a baby passes, they are bathed, medical devices are removed, dressed in beautiful white gowns and swaddled in the softest knit blankets. “We make memory boxes with footprints, handprints and locks of hair. If parents wish, we make special hand and foot molds.” Nurses also create scrapbooks containing hospital bands, crib cards and keepsakes. “It’s a way to pay our respect to the fighting spirit that these babies have. It’s our way of putting this tiny soul to rest, as we give the parents something meaningful to hold on to.”

For those babies whose parents are not there during their final moments, nurses ensure that this little soul passes on feeling love and tenderness. Ludwig and her team have a pact that all babies who pass will be held and loved.

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