How a NICU nurse is supporting her team and helping grieving families heal

Nicu Nurse Mai Stigen, nicu nurse, critical care patients, daisy award winner, bereavement program, now I lay me down to aleep, NILMDTS, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

Our nurses and providers encounter a variety of cases as they care for the patients who enter our system. When it comes to our smallest patients in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), these cases can be challenging and often full of emotion. But for Mai Stigen, RN, being there for these families during difficult times is also often the most rewarding.

“Caring for the most critical patients gives me the greatest amount of joy as a nurse, because you know that you are participating in a really crucial point in these babies lives, and to be part of that is so incredible, humbling and rewarding,” says Mai, a NICU nurse, and DAISY Award winner.

Mai is currently overseeing the development of a bereavement program with her unit manager, Sam Low, RN, specifically for NICU families. She has also taken on another role for grieving families: photographer for families who have lost an infant.

Mai, who has worked at Hennepin Healthcare for almost 12 years, began her career in the Pediatric Clinic before transferring to the NICU. “I think I knew early on that I wanted to work with children and kids, and then as I continued on my nursing journey, I kind of fell in love with NICU,” says Mai.

Earlier this year, Mai became a photographer affiliated with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS), a non-profit organization that brings healing to parents experiencing the loss of a baby with free, professional photos of their baby.

“There were a few times where their services were very much needed and they just didn’t have photographers available for Hennepin Healthcare, and it was kind of heartbreaking,” says Mai.

Mai purchased her own equipment and attended courses through NILMDTS on photography basics and connecting families to their infants during photo sessions. Now she volunteers with NILMDTS, not only taking photos for families at Hennepin Healthcare but surrounding hospitals as well.

Often at the beginning of these photo sessions, families are nervous about handling an infant who has passed away, but when Mai introduces herself and explains her nursing background in the NICU, it eases some of their fears and helps them feel more comfortable.

“I think what brings me joy in doing this is that I’m helping the families connect with their baby by small things like calling the baby by their name, asking permission to handle their baby, asking family members if they want photos, and helping them hold their babies for the first time.”

Mai sees the bereavement program as a collection of tools and resources to help nurses support families who are experiencing grief from their babies being in our NICU or passing away. “It’s been an ongoing project for many years before my time or before I was asked to join, but we’re hoping to make this program a little bit more fruitful for our families by establishing something for our NICU and maybe expanding to the Birth Center,” says Mai.

It is still in its beginning stages as Mai looks for opportunities to expand the NICU’s current offerings. One example of this is the NICU’s partnership with On Angels’ Wings – a nonprofit known for creating grief resources for families specific not only to the NICU but to also to pediatrics. In addition, Mai attended a conference earlier this year called Resolve Through Sharing led by Gundersen Lutheran – a hospital system in Lacrosse, Wisconsin.

“Gundersen Lutheran does several different kinds of perinatal, pediatric and infant loss programs. We have had some losses in our NICU and I wanted to understand how to better support our families. It gave me a few more skills in my toolkit to use when the time comes for that and hopefully, I can share what I’ve learned with my coworkers as well.”

Hennepin Healthcare’s mission is exceptional care without exception – and this care extends to grieving families after a tragic loss. Expanding bereavement resources specific to the NICU equips nurses and other members of the care team with tools to support patient families. These instances of going above and beyond create a sense of healing our community knows they can expect from our team.

“It continues to build relationships with these families. We’ve seen families that have had losses, and they continue to come back to Hennepin and have their babies here with us. I think the small little things that I’m doing make a big impact on our families and help them with their grief journey.”