Katie Watts always loved art and design. “I thought I wanted to be a graphic designer,” says, the mother of seven and wife to husband, Shawn. “But that profession didn’t pan out.” Instead, she listened to her mother’s advice, followed in her footsteps and enrolled in nursing school. “After graduating, she immediately began working in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), where she’s been ever since – that was 13 years ago.
Hurley is designated as the region’s only Level III NICU. “This is my passion,” she says. “What I’m doing with these babies, taking care of them, making connections with their parents is fulfilling and I believe I’m truly making a difference.” The kind of difference she is making is quite remarkable. “I take care of babies born around 22 weeks – technically they’re not viable and should not be able to live.” But they do live.
Nurse Watts monitors the tiny – sometimes weighing as little as 13 ounces – or very sick infants every single day until they’re allowed to go home. “They become like one of my own,” she says. “I’m attached to their parents and families and I often remain involved in the child’s life for quite some time after they’re released.”
For example, Leeland Mercer was born at 22 weeks and five days weighing one pound and three ounces. “He was given a zero percent chance of survival,” says his mother, Teanna Zigila. “Nurse Katie was the first to work on Leeland and became his primary nurse.” Leeland spent four months in the NICU. “Katie took great care of him,” says Teanna. “When I couldn’t be there, she’d text me updates, send photos and call me about his progress.” Leeland went to Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak for eye surgery and the staff there wanted to keep him at their facility. “Katie fought to get Leeland back to Hurley,” says Teanna. “She called me and said, ‘I’m going to get our baby.’” Teanna appreciates Watts’ above-and-beyond nursing skills. “She treated him like her own; and because of her excellent care, Leeland is thriving today.” He’s almost four years old now, and although he lives with obstacles, such as autism and cerebral palsy, he is alive.
Teanna is grateful Watts still calls to check on Leeland. “She even babysits for him,” she says.
As a NICU nurse, Watts loves being challenged and remains active in her ongoing education. She very recently took on the role of the NICU Nurse Clinician, and there are many specialty committees she can belong to – respiratory, breastfeeding, neonatal abstinence, parent education, bereavement and many others. Watts is also part of the transport team. “I go and pick up sick babies from other hospitals,” she says. “This is an aspect of neonatal care that many people don’t know about. I love the autonomy this allows me as a nurse. When a baby is not thriving at another hospital, we take the SPLASH ambulance and bring the sick baby back to Hurley.”
Watts explains the SPLASH ambulance is a state-of-the-art ambulance Specialized Pediatric and Perinatal Life Support Ambulance Supporting Hurley Children’s Hospital. “It’s a thrill,” she says, “It’s an adrenaline rush for me as we travel to Owosso, Bad Axe, Lapeer, Marlette, Petoskey or even another Flint hospital to pick up a sick baby.”
Her nursing skills go on auto-pilot as she performs lifesaving tasks to help stabilize the infant. The ambulance is equipped with top-notch monitors and cardiac equipment for mothers and babies. “It’s nerve-wracking and terrifying all at once,” she says. “But we work as a team and we have excellent equipment. Our ultimate goal is to get that baby safely back to Hurley.”
Watts says it is a feeling of accomplishment and also great pride in the level of competent care she and her colleagues offer critically ill infants who are not expected to live.
“I’m blessed to work with the most amazing teams,” she says. “Our doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, leadership team and ancillary staff are amazing.” Her pride in serving the public at Hurley is evident, as well. “I’m sure everyone says that about people they work with, but when it comes to teamwork, dedication and heart I truly believe we are the best of the best!”
Photography by Eric Dutro