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Hometown Heroes: Neonatal nurses provide loving care

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 07:28 PM

You might assume that the tiny babies, the weary mothers, the frightened dads who pass through Tampa General Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) are forgotten when the next tiny babies arrive.

It is not so.

Not long ago, news reports kept coming about child homicides, one after another, and the NICU nurses recognized many of them as the babies they had once held and loved. The nurses mourned for them all.

NICU nurse manager Pam Sanders, 47, knew it was time to call a Code Lavender for the devastated unit.

You'll never hear a Code Lavender called on "House" or "Grey's Anatomy."

It's an internal signal to TGH staff that people on a particular unit are hurting, that those who help the patients need a little help themselves.

"We work together so closely here, we become like family," says Sanders, who oversees a staff of 200.

If some managers are logical, building on knowledge and fact-gathering to get the job done, others lead with their hearts. Sanders, however, weaves both strengths into one. She believes her job is not only about caring for babies, but caring for those who care for the babies.

With 18 years of experience as a NICU nurse, Sanders knows the field draws people who care deeply but must somehow cope when premature or seriously ill babies don't make it.

It hurts, and she is there to offer comfort.

"Nurses ask me if it ever gets easier, and I say no," Sanders says. "If it does get easy, it's probably time for you to leave."

Sanders' hardest day on the job came when the NICU lost one of its much-loved nurses to domestic violence.

On Oct. 26, 2010, young, energetic Larsen Hunt was shot to death by her former boyfriend in her Seminole Heights home. The single mother of a 5-year-old son with autism, Hunt was a pretty and popular addition to the NICU staff.

Hunt, 25, worked nights so she could be with her son, Aidric, during the day, trying different diets and treatments for his condition.

Police say Jason Skinner, the former boyfriend, died when he crashed his car into a vacant house about 90 minutes after the shooting.

The unit reeled in shock at the news. None of them had known Hunt had a restraining order against Skinner, who had a history of abusive behavior.

To honor Hunt, the unit wears purple scrubs on the 26th of every month, along with a special ribbon pin. One side is puzzle pieces, the symbol for autism, while the other side is lavender for domestic violence.

Code Lavender was born in those days, when TGH staff stepped in to help their colleagues, Sanders says. Counselors talked it out with NICU workers, pediatric nurses took over the care of the NICU babies. Sanders arranged for the grieving nurses to take time off and made sure food was available for those too stricken to think about cooking.

"Pam is a nurse leader who understands that nurses are special people," says Deana Nelson, TGH's executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Sanders' generosity extends beyond her unit. The mother of two young adults and a 17-year-old adopted niece is the hospital's March of Dimes chairwoman and serves on its local board.

She chose the charity because of its long history in support of babies and their families.

Nelson says Sanders also was instrumental in the innovative design of TGH's $35 million neonatal care unit, which opened in November 2010. Instead of a line of incubators in a large, bright and busy room, each baby has his or her own room with space for families.

Nurses are able to see in without disturbing the babies or moms. The quiet rooms are kept at a warm temperature with dim lighting, designed to simulate the experience in the womb.

Sanders and others from the hospital visited other NICUs nationwide to select the best features of them all.

Sanders believes she is fortunate to have found her niche among the tiny babies, their hopeful parents and her devoted nurses.

"Sometimes God directs your steps," she says, recalling her first time in a NICU as a young nursing student. "I was green as grass. There was this baby that was too perfect! Too cute!"

Then she learned the baby was a twin.

One twin was fine, but this little boy had hypoxia; his brain had been deprived of oxygen so long it had ceased functioning.

"He was alone," Sanders says. "His parents had a good one at home. They didn't need to visit him."

It broke her heart, but opened her eyes to her true calling.

"I'm truly blessed to be doing what I love," Sanders says.


dkoehn@tampatrib.com (813) 259-8264

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