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Jenna Johnston

As a nurse in the BC Women’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), Jenna Johnston has cared for some of the tiniest and most critically ill patients from across the province. Recently, Jenna herself became a patient at BC Women’s as a new mom.


The largest of its kind in B.C., the NICU cares for approximately 1,700 babies every year. All of them need special medical and surgical care for a range of reasons, including preterm birth, low birth weight, breathing difficulty and infection.

“It is a privilege to work there,” Jenna says. “It is always an honour to help families navigate through such difficult situations and to try and make it the best it can be.”

Parents are encouraged to spend as much time with their babies as possible, day or night, so teams make every effort to accommodate family requests. But it can be a challenging in the current NICU space.

“I’ve had parents ask to lie down with or near their babies or whether there is a quiet or private room available – it’s a very basic request – but within the current layout, space is limited,” Jenna says. That’s why she’s especially excited about the NICU program moving into the Teck Acute Care Centre at BC Children's. 

As the Redevelopment Project’s Clinical Lead for the NICU, Jenna has been a critical member of the team involved in designing and planning for the new space. 
“An exciting part of this role has been connecting with the families and staff and having them participate in the process and seeing their feedback get utilized in the design,” she says. “All the questions, comments, concerns and energy people have put into the process   has really helped shape the new unit.”

The NICU will include 70 private, single-patient rooms on two floors. This will increase privacy and comfort for families, which has been shown to result in faster recovery times and better health outcomes for patients. Twelve mom-and-baby capable rooms also means both can receive the care they need in the same room and stay together. Each patient room will include sleeping accommodations and storage lockers. Shared family amenities will include washrooms with showers, kitchen areas, laundry and quiet rooms.

The opportunity to spend time with patients and their families is what initially attracted Jenna to the intensive care environment. 

She pursued nursing on the suggestion of a close friend and mentor and graduated from the University of Victoria with her Bachelor of Science in Nursing. In her second year of nursing school, she applied to the employed student nurse (ESN) program and was assigned to the NICU in Victoria.

“Initially, I was very nervous because I didn’t know anything about NICU,” she says. “However, shortly after starting there, I had a friend who had a baby born at 28 weeks.”

That gave her the chance to not only see the NICU from a nurse’s perspective, but also from a friend of the family’s point of view.

“That was probably one of the best learning experiences early on, because I was able to put two and two together – the science and also the impact to families,” she says. “The experience left quite an impression and fueled my passion to pursue neonatal nursing.”

She continued to work as an ESN for two years until she graduated. She moved to Vancouver to finish her specialty program at BCIT and was hired at BC Women’s tertiary centre. She expected to stay for a year, but that turned into eight and she’s never looked back.

“What I’ve always found rewarding working at BCW’s is just being present for the families and trying to  honour what their hopes are for their babies – how they want to be involved and including them in the care,” she says. “It’s amazing to be able to provide that for them during a time that is intense, unpredictable, stressful and often described as scary.”

She admits the NICU can be a rollercoaster at times for care providers and especially for families of patients who are very sick or very premature or have complex surgical needs.

“There’s happy and heartbreak in the unit, however, there’s a balance of it and for the most part, there is a lot of happy and I find that’s what helps people get through.”

Jenna says one of the difficult aspects of the job is accepting that sometimes she may never know how patients have fared after they’re discharged.

“So when a family comes back for a visit to the unit or sends a thank you card from their child’s five-year birthday, you can experience a mix of emotions – most often great joy,” she says.  

She’s also fascinated to discover that many of the babies she’s cared for still have similar personalities as older children – the feisty ones are still feisty and the sleepy ones are still sleepy.

“NICU is a unique area where I found that even though your patients are newborn babies, you can still appreciate their personalities and get to know them. You realize quickly they all have their own distinct personalities.”

The family-focused environment of the NICU also extends to the team itself, which Jenna describes as a tight-knit, highly skilled and very supportive team. It’s one of the reasons why the mother-to-be has chosen to give birth at BC Women’s.

“The team at BC Women’s is such a talented team and although you never know what’s going to happen just knowing that the team is going to be nearby puts my mind at ease,” she says.

What is she looking forward to most becoming a mother herself?

“During the deliveries I’ve attended and all the families I’ve have the pleasure caring for, I’ve always admired the connection they have with their babies and how they interact with them,” she says. “I’ve never felt I could fully understand that connection a parent has with their child – I’m looking forward to experiencing that.”

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