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Hospitals around this country have been upgrading neonatal intensive care units to include personal webcams for each tiny patient. But Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville reports the video streams are for much more than just comforting parents.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: After 20 years as a neonatal ICU nurse, Sherri Anderson has seen parents run themselves ragged trying to be there every day for their preemie.
SHERRI ANDERSON: The parents go through a lot emotionally, spiritually, physically. And it's very taxing, and sometimes they just need to go home and just recover.
FARMER: Because it can be a long road. When babies are born prematurely, they can spend weeks or even months in the NICU, and Mom and Dad want to be there to comfort their little one.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABIES CRYING)
FARMER: Call it the webcam wave, and it's made its way to Saint Thomas Hospital in Nashville. A camera over each covered crib provides a close-up view that anyone in the world can log on to see with a password. Jill Brothers had twin boys at 27 weeks and spent two months at the hospital. Meanwhile, her husband was working in Florida and able to see them.
JILL BROTHERS: This has been a crucial element to, you know, just being a part and feeling like you're involved with their growth.
FARMER: And she found herself checking the Web stream from home in the middle of the night. She says it was comforting to see them inhale and exhale.
BROTHERS: So I really just felt like it was safe and comfortable.
FARMER: Parents' peace of mind isn't the primary aim, though. Saint Thomas' NICU nursing director Donna Darnell says the new cameras could keep other family members from sneaking their germs in the unit.
DONNA DARNELL: There are times throughout the year where we really worry about a lot of visitors. Flu season is the best example.
FARMER: Even during normal times, access for family and friends is highly restricted, so parents have loved the video access. Doctors are OK with it. But a study published in the American Journal of Perinatology found some nurses have misgivings about being watched 24/7. Dr. Gene Dempsey from the University College Cork in Ireland helped conduct the survey and says nurses worry they'll get even more after-hours calls wanting an explanation for what's on screen. But he says that doesn't seem to happen.
GENE DEMPSEY: In fact, some of the workers suggested that the interaction at parent level, in terms of phone calls in the evening and at nighttime, are less when the system is in place.
FARMER: Dempsey's own hospital is launching a webcam system in the next few weeks and so he's made a point of getting nurses on board.
DEMPSEY: What we are probably going to do, and we've had much discussion with the nursing staff initially, is that this would be a phased-in process.
FARMER: He says they'll start with virtual visitation hours. At Saint Thomas, the nursing director decided to turn off the live streams whenever they're working with the child, a compromise that seems to have everyone smiling for the camera. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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