November 1, 2018

When the Unexpected Happens: Mission’s Specialized NICU Team Cares for Parents Too

November is Prematurity Awareness Month. Jill Whitfield’s story highlights how important it is to reduce premature birth rates and raise awareness of this serious and costly problem.

Most expectant moms have a birth plan — an idea about how her child’s birth will unfold. Nothing was further from Whitfield’s mind than being hospitalized at 22 weeks pregnant. The Whitfields hoped their twins wouldn’t need Mission’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), but both babies were whisked away just minutes after their birth 15 weeks early.

Nearly all premature infants (babies born prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy) require NICU services, along with full-term infants with other types of issues identified before or at birth, such as an infection or a birth defect. While some babies visit the NICU briefly to get strong enough to be reunited with mom, others stay a while with the specialized care team.

With her mind racing the first time she visited her newborns in the NICU, Whitfield recalls looking at the babies hooked up to machines and wondering, am I even allowed to touch them?

“Communication is key in the NICU when it comes to caring for our tiny patients and their families,” said Jessica Edwards, an outreach coordinator for the Family Support Network at Mission Children’s Hospital. “We want families to share their needs and desires so we can help them be part of the babies’ firsts.”

In the nearly 100 days the twins were in the NICU, the Whitfields became their babies’ advocates. They rounded with doctors, learning a new language to understand their babies’ condition and daily progress.

“The nurses helped us understand what we could do to help the twins — from feeding to kangaroo care,” said Whitfield.

One of the scariest times in the NICU was when baby Hudson needed to go back on the ventilator. It felt like many steps backward. “Gary, who was the twins’ respiratory therapist, pulled me aside and explained why this was needed. He comforted me with kindness and information, encouraging me to be there to hold Hudson’s hand. That was the care we all needed,” said Whitfield.

Jill Whitfield and Jessica Edwards are part of the NICU Family Advisory Council, a team of families and caregivers working to improve services and communications for families whose babies are in Mission’s NICU.

Jessica Edwards is an outreach coordinator for the Family Support Network at Mission Children’s Hospital

Mission Children’s Hospital cares for about 800 newborns each year in the NICU from counties across western North Carolina. To learn more about all the services at Mission Children’s Hospital, visit