Robert Adam Mayer
As psychologists in the neonatal intensive care unit, Drs. Susan Kraemer and Zina Steinberg counsel the parents of premature
infants and help the unit’s health-care team better understand the parents’ emotions.
“It’s a toxic, secret shame that infects their interactions with
family, medical staff and even their babies,” Steinberg says.
“The group seems to at least partly alleviate this, as it fosters a
network among parents with this common experience.”
Steinberg and Kraemer also find that many families rely on
them to figure out how to “navigate the system” on the unit.
Because they have their own relationships with the nurses and
physicians, the two psychologists can often provide suggestions
to parents about the best time to ask a nurse if they can hold
their baby and how to ask a neonatologist about their baby’s
Since Leo faced an extended NICU stay, his parents were
invited to seek out a group of nurses who would be assigned
to care for him every shift. Asher went to Steinberg for help in
determining how to select her son’s primary nursing team.
“I mean, this is Columbia [University] — all of these nurses
are, technically speaking, the top nurses in their field, but she
reminded me that they have to be a good match for my family,”
Asher says. “She told me, ‘This is the person you’re going to call
when you wake up in the middle of the night and first thing in
the morning. They’re going to be standing here for you in the
hour you’re away from the NICU.’ That really helped put things
in perspective for me during that decision.”
Kraemer and Steinberg also help the care team better
understand parents’ emotions and mindsets, says Helen Towers,
MD, professor of pediatrics at Columbia University and a
neonatologist on the unit. For example, the physicians on the
unit rotate services every three weeks, so they might not be
providing care throughout an infant’s entire NICU stay.
“All too often, the details of parents’ lives and complications
of home relationships that may well have a bearing on their
parenting skills are not sought out by the physicians but by the
psychologists,” Towers says. “They can share these findings and
allow us to chart more individualized courses for infants and
Central to this effort, Kraemer and Steinberg say, is working
to translate the traumatized psychological minds of parents
— both from a family’s history of previous miscarriages or
stillbirths in addition to the most recent traumatic birth
experience and uncertain future for their newborn — to the
medical and nursing staff, as well as the unit’s social workers.
“Understanding that the traumatized and frightened mind
processes information and experience in very particular ways
goes a long way toward fostering more successful interactions
between parents and staff who are otherwise mystified,
frustrated or even angered by heated encounters with parents,”