Alison Thomson taking care of newborns and new parents

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We’re thrilled to introduce you to our 2022 Cubro Health Heroes – rewarding incredible Kiwi health workers who put in the hard mahi to care for us all.   

Alison Thomson knows all too well how scary it feels to take your baby home from a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for the first time.

Having worked in Starship’s NICU for several years, she gave birth to her twin girls in 2018 at just 27 weeks gestation – three months earlier than expected – and found herself back on the ward as a parent just after she went on maternity leave.

“I finished work on the Wednesday and they arrived on the Friday. So I’ve done the NICU journey on both sides – from a parent’s point of view and also from a nurse’s.”

Now her daughters are busy preschoolers, Alison has resumed working with Starship’s neonatal homecare team where she helps families transition from NICU back to their home environment.

“It is scary because you’ve got this real tight support network when you’re in NICU and there’s always a nurse or doctor to talk to. It does feel quite daunting going home and doing it on your own and not being able to just go and ask someone ‘is this okay?’ Some of our parents have been here for two or three months so it’s quite nerve-wracking going out into the real world.”

This is where Alison’s role provides support for new parents. Her charge nurse, Dale Garton, describes the 33-year-old as an ‘unsung hero’ of the last two years. “She goes beyond 110% to ensure that babies going home from NICU get the support and service they need when they transition home,” Dale says. “Her homecare role has been confounded by additional guidelines and PPE associated with the Covid response. Throughout this time, and in adverse conditions, she ran the service to ensure vulnerable babies stay safe.”

Covid did indeed throw a curve-ball at the homecare team but Alison came up with innovative solutions to deliver remote care. “It was a really tough time for us morally as well because we didn’t want to not see families. But we also had to see them in a way that was safe for us as well as safe for them.”

Regular RATs and Zoom calls were instigated, and multiple new sets of scales were purchased so families could weigh their baby at home and report results without nurses having to physically be present. A screening tool was developed which guided how much PPE had to be worn during weekly home visits and social distancing protocols were put in place.

“It has worked quite well,” Alison says. “It’s certainly changed the way we work and showed us how we could be working better and more efficiently. We were able to figure out what sat most comfortably with us, and with parents.”

Holding newborn's hand

Feeding issues are the most common problems new parents grapple with when they first return home. Many NICU babies are fed through nasal gastric tubes in hospital, so learning to feed without one tires babies out – and their parents – and throws any semblance of routine out the window.

Alison describes the homecare service as a ‘safety net’ to make sure babies continue to grow and feed well after they leave NICU. “Some extreme pre-term babies that are born at 24 or 25 weeks need to go home on some low flow oxygen. We work with families and their neonatologist to gradually wean that oxygen down so those babies can sometimes be with us for three to six months.”

When the time is right, the homecare team passes that medical oversight over to Well-Child providers such as Plunket or Māori or Pacific health organisations in the community.

Although homecare nurses like Alison see most babies twice a week, their phones are always on to respond to calls and text messages from worried parents.

“I really enjoy working with families and seeing them get to a point where they are comfortable and happy with family life. It’s about easing those fears and being someone who they can talk to about their anxieties of being at home because it is a daunting time. I really enjoy that family-centered care and being able to talk those fears through and then see them in a couple of weeks flourishing at home.”

Cubro Health Hero winner 2022: Alison Thomson

Cubro Health Hero winner 2022: Alison Thomson

Alison is one of this year’s deserving Health Hero award winners although she had no idea her charge nurse, Dale, had nominated her. “It was just such a lovely surprise, and really nice to be recognised for a really hard two years. We all have worked hard since Covid arrived to make sure that we’re doing what’s best for our families and supporting them as best we can.”

Read about our other Health Hero winners and their incredible efforts during such difficult times: Learn about Pharmacist Chris London's efforts to serve the needs of his community of Milton.