UCSF intensive care nursery improvises around COVID-19 challenges

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- While social distancing has become the new normal during the coronavirus pandemic, for families in one of the Bay Area's premiere infant care units, it's become critical. The staff at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital is going to extraordinary lengths to keep parents and their infants connected, even when they all can't be together physically.

For baby Jensen Blanks, it means precious family time and a chance to see his dad, Jason, face to face. Since COVID-19 forced a new one-parent policy, he's spent much of his time at the UCSF Benioff Children's hospital with his mom, and visiting his dad in Fresno via Zoom.

"You know, that was the hardest part, because I was holding him at the moment it came over the loudspeaker," said dad Jason Blanks of the COVID-19 related policy change.

The Intensive Care Nursery at UCSF Benioff is treating dozens of extremely vulnerable newborns and young babies. Allowing just one parent to stay for a 24 hour shift helps protect their child from possible exposure to the virus.

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And it's also unleashed an incredible burst of creativity.

"So if you look up into these windows, you'll see that different families will decorate their windows," said hospital chaplain Hagar Ben-Eliezer, as she pointed to the outside of the hospital.

Ben-Eliezer says some parents use their window space to signal family and friends, perhaps by adding a child's initial, a party sign, or maybe just a wave.

She points to other creative solutions, for working around the crisis, including group support classes that help parents cope with the stress are being held face to face again with social distancing.

Pediatric nursing professor Linda Franck, Ph.D., also demonstrated a special mobile app called "We3 Health" that Benioff is helping to develop. It's allowing families, including the off-site parent, to track their child's progress, and master the skills they'll need to learn before they return home.

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"These are the things they need to learn along the way," said Franck.

"We started to really get creative with options for bringing families together," she added. That includes music therapy, which let's infants and their parents to sing and dance along with music therapist Brianna Negrete. Since the sessions are now remote, Negrete doesn't need to wear a mask, giving infants one more opportunity to focus in on facial expressions and learn the cues that are so critical to their development.

"You can't do that with a mask, but we're able to adapt and make it the best possible situation out of something that we can't really control," Negrete said.

While parents may have to wear a mask, the mom or dad on site is still able to have critical skin-to-skin time with their infant. Families say they're grateful for the UCSF team and the improvised solutions that are making a difficult situation as comforting as possible.

"For him just to see an unmasked familiar face," said Jensen's mom Jill, as she shared a Zoom hookup. "You're looking good," chimed in dad Jason to his son.

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