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Cook Children's Offers Help For NICU Parents Suffering From Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Licensed Clinical Social Worker helps families with PTSD after NICU stay

Avery's Journey

Kelly Wooley is a Cook Children's employee who has written a series of blogs chronicling the birth of her daughter Avery and their time spent in the Cook Children's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and beyond. Today, Kelly writes about her own journey and the risk of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Until recently, I would have never thought I had anything in common with a war veteran or victim of domestic violence or child abuse. Honestly, I’ve led a relatively easy life.

But, as a parent whose child spent nearly eight months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), I’m at risk for developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Just like a war veteran or victim of abuse. That’s why Cook Children’s has added a Licensed Clinical Social Worker to help support parents during and after their time in the NICU.

People don’t often think about the effect that a NICU stay can have on a parent. Most of the time is spent worrying about the health of the baby and getting him or her healthy enough to go home. Once that happens, all the stress is over and life can go back to normal, right?

Not exactly.

Research tells us that up to 53 percent of mothers and up to 33 percent of fathers with babies in the NICU suffer from PTSD. So, why isn’t this talked about? What kind of resources exist for these parents?

Let’s start with a definition first.

What is PTSD?

PTSD is classified as an anxiety disorder characterized by a collection of persistent, debilitating physical and emotional reactions to traumatic, scary or life-threatening experiences. It can last or show up several years after the actual traumatic incident.

The first time I read that definition, I honestly didn’t think it had anything to do with me. Sure, the time we spent in the NICU was stressful but it hadn’t affected me THAT much.

Or had it?

It took our daughter Avery being back at Cook Children’s earlier this year for me to realize just how much it actually had affected me.

Avery has been home from the NICU for over two years. We’ve continued to have our struggles but nothing compared to our time in the NICU. For the most part, I really thought I had moved on. Avery’s 10-day stay in the hospital with RSV earlier this year has proven otherwise.

All it took was our first night back in at Cook Children’s to bring all the NICU memories rushing back.

The sight of Avery having to be on oxygen again. The familiar sounds of alarms going off and the smell of the hospital room. The hushed voices of the nurses trying to figure out what was going on. The fear and worry about whether Avery was going to be OK. The uncertainty of just how sick she was and how long we’d be there for. Except this time it was almost worse because Avery was older now and so much more aware of everything that was going on.

Even after all this time, the NICU memories flooded back in and honestly, I struggled but I wasn’t really sure why. She was nowhere near as sick as she had been in the NICU and 10 days didn’t even begin to compare to the 234 days we’d spent in the NICU.

It was after a recent visit with Helen Thomas, the newly hired clinical therapist for current and post NICU families, that I’ve begun to understand why. It was Helen who shared the analogy of the NICU being like a war zone with me. Since our initial conversation, we’ve been meeting regularly to talk more about how our time in the NICU has affected me. She’s helping me learn how to cope with the trauma that I’ve experienced.

“Because PTSD can develop from intense, life-threatening fear, having a child in the NICU can cause PTSD similar to individuals who have experienced military combat, victimization of violent crime/abuse or surviving a car accident,” she explained.

I felt an “Aha” moment went off in my head after hearing her explanation. It made so much sense. It was so validating. The NICU WAS traumatic. It has forever changed me. For the most part, it has changed me for the good. It has taught me perspective and to always celebrate the little things in life. But, as I recently learned, it did take its toll on me and my body and brain may not ever forget it.

Just like a war veteran doesn’t forget being on the battlefield, I will never forget my time in the NICU.

How a Clinical Therapist or Counselor Helps



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Sharon Keenum
As Kelly's mom and Avery's grandmother, I am thankful to Cook's for providing this helpful resource. Kelly is a caring, loving wife and and mother who tends to put too much blame on herself. Having a professional to visit with about her thoughts, fears, and anxieties has been and will continue to be enlightening. I hope other individuals who have been through traumatic experiences will take advantage of Helen Thomas's expertise.