Eric's heroes: The 'angels' who care for the smallest, most fragile babies

At Swedish's Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit, staff care for the smallest, most fragile of babies. (Photo: KOMO News)

A new father, Erik, sits in the shadows, 10 feet away from a clear plastic capsule, watching quietly and helplessly as three women reach inside and work on a tiny baby girl, named Saoirse, pronounced say-er-sha. It's Gaelic for "freedom".

She is tiny. And vulnerable. And she lets out a little cry as she is poked and prodded by the nurses.

Saoirse has monitors hooked up to her, and tubes and patches are all over her impossibly small body. Tiny toes and fingers thrash about and kick. Six hands, each of them larger than Saoirse's entire torso, tend to her, helping her fight for precious life.

"You're strong!" says one of the three nurses.

Erik just watches. Right now, it's all he can do.

Across the hallway, in a different room, a woman named Andrea has her newborn resting on her chest. His name is Lao, and he is sleeping softly. Andrea is whispering to him. Maybe it's encouragement. Maybe it's a prayer. She keeps whispering. Maybe it soothes the sleeping baby. Maybe it soothes her, too.

And in another corner of the room, a man named Josh and a woman named Bethany look through another of the clear plastic capsules at the tiniest baby of them all, Barrett.

Josh has his hands inside, resting tenderly atop the baby. The hands completely cover Barrett's body.

Right now it's as close as they can get to their baby. Barrett was born 15 weeks and two days early.

Bethany says, "It's a rollercoaster. Every day is different, you know? It's up and down. he's so small..."

Inside Swedish Hospital, at the end of a hallway on the sixth floor, the frailty of life and the tenacity with which we cling to it, engage in mortal battle.

Every hour of every day.

It's called the N.I.C.U. Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit.

It is a place of deep emotion.

Tears of joy and fear and a thousand other things roll down Andrea's face as she whispers, "Usually I wouldn't describe myself as a positive person, but I remember when they talked to me about Lao... I just know he will be the positivity of my life."

The tears don't stop.

It is also a place of profound joy, which is expressed not with laughter, but instead with quiet awe.

Erik is sitting back in a chair now, and a nurse is handing him his baby daughter.

"So her feet are going right onto your belly," says the nurse. "Perfect."

Erik looks scared and thrilled. He concentrates hard and says, "Hi, Sweetie Pie..."

Saoirse begins to cry again, little feet and hands flailing at the air.

The nurse reassures Erik, "She is nice and contained right there..."

"It's OK, Sweetie... it's OK."

Saoirse was too eager to come into the world. She'd been airlifted to this place from Whidbey Island.

The nurse had stepped away now. Erik was holding his daughter alone for the first time.

"It's very frightening," he said. "You could break her so easily.."

The wonder of this place is almost hard to take in. In every corner, little miracles of life fight for their place in this world.

Across the way is Blake. She is 2-months old, and still impossibly small.

She weighed 1 pound, 14 ounces when she was born. Her right hand is roughly the size of his mother Abby's thumbnail.

Almost casually, Abby reminds us, "She's supposed to still be in my belly."

"She had two surgeries in the first week of her life," she continues, "...she had a perforated intestine."

I have some small understanding of what these parents are going through. And I share their sense of wonder and admiration for the job the N.I.C.U. nurses do.

Sixteen years ago, my daughter, Grace, was born prematurely. She was in these rooms at this hospital.

My wife, Monique, and I reached through the same holes in those same plastic capsules to offer human warmth to our baby. I remember being scared. And I remember promising myself that one day I would honor these nurses... the ones to whom we hand over the things that matter to us more than our own lives.

Becci Otterbech has been working in N.I.C.U. for 25 years.

As she rocks a baby in her arms she smiles and says, "It's the best job in the world. I feel so blessed and I feel lucky to do what I do."

Danni Deutsch also calls it the best job in the world. "They let us be there for their babies and take care of them when they can't be here all the time... it's an incredible honor."

They are a special breed of nurse. Angels, really. Brave enough to care for the most vulnerable and fragile of human beings...

Tender enough to guide the most vulnerable and fragile of parents through the most trying times of their lives.

"Aren't you afraid they'll break?" I ask Jenn Hart.

"I was terrified when I started here. I was terrified," she says. "I'm not anymore."

Laawna Murchison looks at her work this way: "It's so great to come to work everyday and do something that you know matters."

There are bad days, to be sure. Heartbreaking days when the world doesn't seem fair, and they have to console devastated parents who's babies have been lost.

But it's the little miracles that keep them coming back, day after day, year after year.

I asked each of them the same simple question. "What have you learned about life working here?"

Dani said, "That it's precious, and that every baby is a miracle."

Jenn answered, "That it's so not fair. Not fair. So many families that come through here should not have to go through this..."

And Becci replied, "Mostly how fragile it is, and not to take anything for granted.

Better than most, they understand this: that even the tiniest and the most helpless are precious gifts, bursting with human potential, with infinite futures, and if given a fighting chance, they will grow to inherit the world.

A few days later I turned the corner on the sixth floor at Swedish with my daughter, Grace, walking at my side.

There were three nurses there who were working that day 16 years ago when she spent the first couple weeks of her life under their care. Becci Otterbech, Jenn Hart and Trish Nervik.

They oooh'ed and awww'ed and told her how pretty she was.

Trish said, "You were actually in Room 5, and you were born right before shift change because I was the nightshift nurse at the time."

Grace smiled.

For me it just seemed like the best possible way to say thanks to these amazing people: show them what I might not have, but for the tender and compassionate work they do.

They are, and will forever be, my Heroes.

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