From RT to RN: Taking on a new role in the NICU

by Stephanie Cunningham, RN
Methodist Dallas Medical Center

A few weeks ago, I told you my story about becoming a respiratory therapist (RT). My grandfather’s battle with emphysema reinforced my desire as a young child to care for others. For 28 years, I proudly helped my tiny patients in Methodist Dallas Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) overcome their breathing challenges as an RT. But I wanted a new career opportunity. Just a few months ago, I graduated from nursing school and took on a new role as a registered nurse in familiar surroundings — the NICU.

When my daughter entered college, it rekindled a long-held inner desire to broaden my health care career by becoming a nurse. I loved the NICU, and I knew I wanted to continue caring for our smallest patients. Being a longtime member of the Methodist Dallas family provided me with a golden opportunity to apply for the associate degree in nursing program, jointly sponsored by Methodist Health System and El Centro Community College. I completed the prerequisite courses, then applied to enter the two-year nursing program.

I was excited at the prospect of actually realizing my dream of becoming a NICU nurse. I knew it was within my reach because Methodist offered full tuition reimbursement as part of its excellent employee benefits package. After graduation, I couldn’t wait to come back to the NICU as a nurse, a role I had been preparing for all my life.

The first two months of my NICU nursing internship focuses on caring for what we call “feeders and growers,” those premature infants who need to be cared for until they are eating and growing and able to be discharged home to continue developing. The following two months will focus on caring for preemies who are more critical. Typically these babies are in the NICU for approximately three months, depending on their weight and progress.

I’ve found that my experience as an RT has helped me care for my patients and educate their families. Respiratory complications are common for preemies because their lungs are one of the last organs to develop. They also risk developing infections because their immune systems are immature. There’s no question that these babies require a lot of care and attention, because they face many obstacles on their journey to full, healthy lives.

NICU nurses share common traits. We love babies, even when they cry at the same time. We have big hearts, but are able to separate ourselves emotionally. We communicate well with our babies’ parents, often providing a stabilizing force during what may be emotional and trying times for them. Being a NICU nurse takes a special kind of person to provide this type of care.

Throughout my years in the Methodist Dallas NICU, I have learned that teaming with parents to carry out the care plan for their baby is extremely important. We serve as nurse and coach, allaying their fears and helping them bond and connect with their baby. Communication is the key to our success and ultimately the common thread that holds the care team together — nurses, respiratory therapists, physical therapists, and physicians.

I think my grandfather would be proud of me and what I’ve be able to give to my precious patients and their families over the years.

If you’re ready to expand your nursing career to the tiniest patients, then it’s time to choose Methodist Health System. Learn more by visiting

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