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Once a NICU Patient, U of U Health Nurse Now Cares for New Mothers and Newborns

Hollee Harris, RN, works for University of Utah’s Maternal Newborn Care Unit where she provides care for mothers after birth.

For Hollee Harris, RN, working in health care felt like destiny. She started her professional career with University of Utah Health about two years ago. The registered nurse began in internal medicine and now works for maternal newborn and women’s health, where she provides care for mothers after birth.

Hollee also comes from a family of medical professionals. At the time of Hollee’s birth, her mother Cheryl Harris, had just graduated from medical assistant school. Hollee’s grandmother was a licensed practical nurse.

“I’ve always wanted to be a nurse for as long as I can remember,” Hollee said. “There’s always been a fascination and connection to the hospital.”

But her connection to U of U Health started 30 years earlier: Hollee is a former NICU patient. Her stay lasted 84 days.

Cheryl was 24 weeks along in her pregnancy with Hollee when she awoke in the night from a gush of fluid. Concerned, she went to a hospital in Utah County, where the medical staff discovered she was having contractions. Cheryl was transferred to University of Utah Hospital by ambulance, where the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) team was prepared to provide care for both mother and baby.
U of U Health doctors and nurses worked quickly to assess the pair. The team decided to perform an amnioinfusion, a procedure that pumps fluid into the amniotic cavity to stop her contractions.

For the time being, Cheryl and Hollee were stable.

At the 25-week mark, Cheryl’s bloodwork showed signs of an infection. The medical team made the decision: It was time to deliver.

Hollee was born weighing 2 pounds and measuring just 12 inches long.

Upon seeing Hollee in the NICU for the first time, Cheryl wasn’t sure her daughter would make it. Hollee was born without skin, no breast pads, and eyes still fused shut.

[Her] fingers looked like matchsticks and [her] head was the size of an orange,” Cheryl recalled. “[She] was hooked up to so many different things.”
Cheryl Harris, Hollee's mother
Cheryl Harris holds Hollee Harris, RN, in University of Utah’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in 1990. Hollee was born at just 25 weeks.

Throughout Hollee’s tenure in the NICU, Cheryl would receive calls asking for permission to try medical procedures. She consented in the hopes of treating her daughter—and also providing help for the next baby and mother in the NICU.

Sue Rogers, RNC, NICU nursing manager at U of U Health, said this type of research is critical to making medical advancements. Sue has worked in the NICU for the past 30 years and has seen the impact firsthand.

“Research has been key to a lot of our improvements for patient outcomes and all of the work that we do,” Rogers said. “It’s amazing to see the way we improve our care not only for babies but also for moms.”
Sue Rogers, RNC, NICU nursing manager at U of U Health

At the time of Hollee’s birth, the medical team started a trial of Surfactant, a treatment for Hollee's underdeveloped lungs. The treatment stabilizes the air sacs and helps the lungs from collapsing.

Surfactant was a research protocol back then, according to Sue. Now, Surfactant is a common treatment in the NICU.

This has also helped keep babies off ventilators, which can cause severe trauma to the lung tissue and lead babies to develop a variety of complications long term.

“Back in the day, almost every baby in the room would be on a ventilator,” Rogers recalled.

At 3 days old, Hollee had the ductus arteriosus, a blood vessel that connects the aorta to the pulmonary artery in a fetus, stapled shut. Hollee’s surgeon went through her side and back rather than her front—a procedure that was a first of its kind. Hollee has a scar on her back to this day, a reminder of the groundbreaking medical care she was a part of.

“NICU babies back then didn’t always survive,” Hollee said, reflecting on the stories she’s heard of her birth from her mother. “There are still things that can go wrong, but medicine has come so far.”

The plan was for Hollee to remain in the NICU until her original due date, or until she reached 5 pounds, but Cheryl’s medical team was happy with Hollee’s progress and released the pair a few weeks early. Hollee was sent home connected to oxygen and a heart monitor.

Rogers says Cheryl’s commitment to her daughter was a vital part of her recovery.

“Parental support is huge,” Rogers said. “Hollee’s mom was very involved and really supported her through her development. It’s a big reason why she’s here today.”

The pair regularly followed up with the medical team. Two weeks later, Hollee came off the heart monitor. A few months later, she came off the oxygen. Hollee has had no major medical complications since.

Hollee said she originally planned to be a labor and delivery nurse. But as she progressed in school, she found a passion for postpartum care.

Hollee said she’s grateful for finding her place at U of U Health.

“In my mind, U of U Health is the best, the elite of the elite,” she said. “I was born here; it’s coming full circle.”
Hollee Harris, RN

Cheryl couldn’t be prouder of her daughter, who defied the odds of survival.

“I would always say, ‘How awesome it would be if you ended up at the hospital where you were born and share your journey with moms who are in the same situation you and I were in 30+ years ago?’” Cheryl said.

“It just goes to show I was here for a reason,” Hollee added.

Cheryl Harris (left) stands with her daughter Hollee Harris, RN, (right) outside of University of Utah Health’s Maternal Newborn Care unit.