Studies have shown that working the graveyard shift can kill you, but don't tell that to Penny Milne. At 62, she is very much alive, thank you, after working 12-hour night shifts for more than 20 years.
A newborn intensive care charge nurse at University Hospital, Penny pays little attention to stories that show night workers are at high risk for cancer because working in artificial light lowers the body's melatonin levels.
She's too busy helping premature infants make it through another night to worry whether her days are numbered because she loves the late shift.
"Even when I wasn't a nurse, I always preferred to get things done at night," she said, taking a Free Lunch break to share a few tales from working on the dark side. "When I had three kids under age 3, midnight to 2 a.m. became my time to sew, paint and read. So working while the world sleeps is nothing new to me."
From 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., three nights a week, you'll find Penny coordinating care for up to 54 premature or seriously ill newborns. "Most people aren't even aware that we have an infant ICU here they think they all go to Primary (Children's Medical Center)," says Penny. "But we see a lot of miracles here, too."
Babies born prematurely are passed immediately through a window from the delivery room to intensive care, where Penny and her staff work calmly and quickly to ensure the infant is getting enough oxygen.
"It's a high anxiety situation when they pass a baby through who isn't breathing and the parents are pounding on the window," she says. "To see the anguish on their faces is heart-wrenching. After five minutes of age, it's our policy to poke our heads through the window and update the parents. But five minutes is a long time to those families."
Some of the infants Penny cares for weigh less than two pounds and are so sensitive that even making eye contact is painful for them. "The stress factor of looking into your face is more than they can handle," she says, "but if you can get them past 24 weeks, they have a good chance."
Late at night, when the floor is quiet, Penny often makes the rounds with her camera to snap digital photos of the babies to give to parents. She started creating portraits more than 10 years ago, after helping a woman who had lost six premature infants.
"On the seventh try, the baby survived and I wanted to do something special," she says. "Now it's a tradition. Any parent who wants pictures of their child will get them."
For some, the gifts are bittersweet. They might have only a few hours or a few days with their babies before they die.
"There have been times when I've put parents in bed with their baby for the night so they can see this baby as it might have been," says Penny. "We've bonded with these kids and we cry with these parents. Fortunately, though, our survival rate is 97 percent."
Penny is driven by the dedication of young nurses who share the night shift with her, giving up extra z's and a normal lifestyle to make a difference for worried families."There are lots of special people working graveyard," she says. "When you're doing what you love, sleep's not such a big thing. Somehow, you get enough."
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