Giant heart, tiny patients: NICU nurse’s soft touch for science, research

Nurses Week 2019

This week is a special week on the Medical Watch, WGN News is honoring the unsung heroes of medicine — nurses. From cancer treatment to rehab, we tackle memory care and end of life.  

WGN News begins the coverage of these caregivers with giant hearts as they handle the tiniest patients in the neonatal intensive care unit at Lurie Children’s Hospital — a hospital brought to life by a — Ann Lurie. She knew patients’ needs can change, sometimes by the hour. And that’s why it was her vision for medicine to adapt. Meet a special nurse is helping make that happen.

CHICAGO — Molly Schau has been a neonatal intensive care nurse for more than 20 years, and while she’s still at the bedside, her role has changed. She helps neighboring Northwestern University researchers conduct clinical trials with babies in the NICU.

“There’s something so wonderful to help people who are going through the worst thing they will ever go through in their life,” Schau said. “It’s hard, we’re asking parents to let us do research on their critically ill babies.”

But Schau does it with grace and bridges science with a softer touch.

“As a nurse you can see things that researchers don’t,” Schau said. “As a researcher you get very focused on. ‘This is my protocol, this is when we draw blood, and this is when I do that.’ And a nurse sees the big picture. They see where the baby is and what the parents are going through.”

Like baby Clarissa. What Clarissa has gone through is remarkable. Surgeons fixed a defect in her spinal cord while she was still in utero. Then she arrived early. Now, as she recovers and grows stronger, she’s helping researchers determine if these gel skin sensors can detect vital signs as effectively as the current gold standard a web of hard wires and leads.

Mason Stumpf is Clarissa’s father.

“It’s tough to see your little baby girl hooked up to all these wires and a bunch of probes and tubes running everywhere,” he said. “Probably the first few days I was afraid to hold her. I don’t want to pull on something, I don’t want to hurt her.”

And that’s why the sensor study and Schau’s work to help test them out are so critical.

“There’s a temperature probe under her arm that would no longer be needed,” Schau said. “And then there’s the black lead and the white lead that would all go away.”

“As far as the research goes, we love being a part of it. We love trying to help other kids out,” Stumpf said. “Some kid in the future will not have to be hooked up to all these wires and be a little more comfortable.”

Baby Zeke is part of the same study. His ventilator is one of his many means of life support. Zeke was born with some of his organs on the outside of his body. And right now, he’s fighting an infection.

Zeke’s mother Channien Ojimba knows they have a long road ahead, but right now she’d simply like to hold her son.

“It’s a challenge just to be able to hold him,” she said. “He’s got so many wires. He’s just entangled. His arms, his legs, his chest, every part of him is attached to something. … Just the skin to skin contact, there’s nothing like that. You need that as a mother to bond with your child, and it’s a little bit harder to have that.”

“I think the skin sensor we’ll see the impact in the next couple of years,” Schau said.

Baby Aiman is in one of Schau’s other studies, though he’s simply too fragile to participate.

“So, we’re going to put the research study on hold just not to overwhelm him,” Schau’s said. “He is a fragile, premature baby, so we’re going to do one thing at a time.”

But sometimes the research nurse is just another mom, a reassuring voice in an uncertain time.

“I’m not a bedside nurse in the typical way, but I’m still here. I care for the patients in a different way. I like that I’ve empowered somebody who has had no choice in any of this to make a decision on their own on behalf of their child,” Schau said. “I do feel like it’s a gift.  They are gracious in allowing us to do research with their child. Maybe in the next couple of years we are better than we are right now.”

Right now, Schau is coordinating about seven research studies.

More on WGN's coverage of Nurses Week 2019

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