A selfie of Claire Panke, who is wearing a Minions cap and a mask.

Claire Panke

Claire Panke
Courtesy of Claire Panke

For anyone giving birth in New York City today, the rules about who can come to the delivery room and protocols to manage the threat of COVID-19 add layers of new stress for parents. If your baby has to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit, separated from their parents, that stress can last for days, weeks, even months at a time.

Claire Panke is a veteran nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, where COVID-19 has presented not only a threat of infection but also a threat to the developing bond between families and their babies. Gothamist/WNYC asked Panke to keep an audio diary and to interview some of the parents of the babies currently hospitalized in the NICU during the pandemic. This article has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Life in the NICU

Claire Panke: I think the main thing that most health care workers realize is that it’s hard sometimes to work in health care and it’s certainly hard to work in health care right now. But it’s much harder to be a patient and it’s much harder to be a family member. 

I’ve been a neonatal intensive care unit nurse for 30 years. We’re primarily there to stabilize the baby, to do whatever care that baby needs because we have premature babies, we have full-term babies, we have post-term babies. From the moment a baby wheels in and really from the first minute, it’s more than just the baby.  We’re helping the families through the experience, explaining things to them: there is a lot of equipment here, a lot of strange sounds and it’s a really intimidating environment for people to walk into.

Listen to Claire Panke and mothers with babies in the NICU discuss their experiences:

It’s very important that whatever amount of time a child is here in the NICU, that the parent slowly gains confidence and starts doing the baby’s care. I always think of it as like a bridge, we’re on one side of the bridge and the parents are on the other side and our goal is to walk the baby over to the other side.

One Mom’s Perspective

Jasmin Moadel’s son Joshua was born at 29 weeks, 11 weeks premature.

Jasmin Moadel: We’ve been in the NICU since the 26th of February, so we sort of witnessed the transition of the hospital from being a bustling place with other types of patients here to just COVID being in full swing. We’re the only visitors that come into the building. When we’re in the elevators we’re with people in full PPE. Everyone looks worn out and exhausted, everyone’s talking how long their day has been. We’re witnessing it but also separate from it at the same time. 

We are here every day for most of the day. We hold him, we take a nap with him, we do skin to skin. It is tough, leaving at the end of the day is always challenging. The nurses have been amazing trying to involve us in the process. We take his temperature, we change his diapers, but it’s not the same. You want to be taking care of your baby. 

Trying to Connect Parents and Babies

Claire Panke: We spend 12 to 13 hours a day with masks on our faces. Not only is that somewhat uncomfortable breathing but there's a barrier when you're talking to a baby, who is wired from birth to look at two eyes, a nose and a mouth. They're not wired to look at two eyes, maybe some glasses and a big blue mask. So one of the biggest days for families and certainly the babies in the NICU is the day they get to go home. It's also really exciting for us as staff members. And I got to speak to one of our moms, Mikala King, on the day that she was bringing her baby David home. 

A photograph of Mikala King with her baby David, who is very very tiny

Mikala King with her baby David

Mikala King with her baby David
Courtesy of Mikala King

Mikala King: Going into the hospital you have to have a mask on, so my baby couldn’t even see my face. My husband and I were not allowed to go into the NICU together as only one parent was allowed at a time, so my husband and I have not been together with our son until today, which is because he’s finally getting to come home. Today will be the first day he gets to see our faces and that we will all be together as a family. He’s 35 and a half weeks. He’s come a long way and we’re grateful to the NICU team at Lenox Hill. Oh my God, I can’t stop crying! 

Claire Panke is a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Lenox Hill Hospital and also a documentary filmmaker. This story was produced by WNYC’s Kaari Pitkin.