Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas Neonatal Intensive Care Nurse Named Employee of the Year

DALLAS — Before Kristina Cardenas became a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, she had never cared for a baby in her life.

“I had literally never fed a baby — never changed a diaper,” said Cardenas, RN, now a six-year veteran nurse in the Texas Health Dallas NICU and recipient of this year’s Employee of the Year Award. “This is a calling — it’s not just a job. It’s not like you clock in, clock out — you bring your heart to work every day.”

“Kristina stood out because she makes it her mission to provide compassionate care to her patients and their families, particularly those facing difficult circumstances,” said Christine Brooks, RN, nurse manager in the Texas Health Dallas NICU.

“She is an incredible compassionate nurse as well as a true advocate, a confidant and friend,” Brooks said. “She calls and checks on her patients and visits them on her days off. She understands the importance of building trust with the patient’s family. We are very proud to have her as part of our team.”

Cardenas and her colleagues in the NICU provide a special kind of nursing care — called primary nursing. Unlike bedside nurses who care for multiple patients in adult units, each NICU nurse is assigned to a baby and cares for the baby throughout the infant’s time in the hospital.

“It’s almost like being a mother to these babies, because you care for them for months at a time, and their parents can’t always be here,” Cardenas said. “We snuggle them, we dress them up, we do pictures with Santa. You can’t help but get attached — especially when they finally look up and smile at you. The most amazing thing is when they start to recognize your voice.”

Because of the close personal nature of care in the NICU, parents of NICU babies often stay in touch, attend reunions, and inform nurses of their child’s progress.

“It starts out as nurse-parent relationship and it turns into friendship,” Cardenas said. “I have a former patient who is in kindergarten now, and I remember when she was here, hooked up to 15 pumps. It’s amazing.”

Cardenas was also recognized regionally last year when she was named a Dallas-Fort Worth "Great 100 Nurse."

Neonatal clinicians like Cardenas make a big difference in the lives of patients. The Level III NICU at Texas Health Dallas is a participant in the Vermont-Oxford Network, a national evidence-based quality improvement collaborative with more than 850 member centers. Because of the unit’s commitment to continual quality improvement, survival rates of the youngest infants admitted to the Texas Health Dallas NICU are more than triple those of same-aged infants cared for at other NICUs in the collaborative.

Infants born before 24 weeks gestation and cared for in the Texas Health Dallas NICU had a 75 percent survival rate compared to a 22 percent survival rate in infants of the same age in the Vermont Oxford group.

For Cardenas, as rewarding as her work can be, it can also be heartbreaking. Not every patient survives, and even during the most difficult times, she brings a special touch to babies’ families — helping them through the grieving process.

Three years ago, Cardenas had been caring for a patient for three months when the family learned their baby had a genetic disorder and would not survive.

“They were going to have to remove life support,” Cardenas said. “It just broke my heart.”

Cardenas had heard from another nurse about a non-profit organization called the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Foundation, which provides remembrance photography to parents who have lost a baby.

“I read about it, and I found out that all their services were completely free,” Cardenas said. “I really wanted them to have pictures of her where she didn’t have all these tubes in her mouth.”

Cardenas coordinated with the organization and arranged for a professional photographer to come to the hospital.

“The work they do is just beautiful,” she said. “They incorporate the parents, they shoot in black and white, and they touch up the photos and soften them so they are just perfect. The photos help the parents remember, this was our baby, she had a name, she had a place in our lives.”

The foundation produced a slideshow for the baby’s family, and Cardenas shared it with her unit council. Now, because of her efforts, the hospital offers this program to every family going through the loss of a baby.

“It’s evident that Kristina brings the art and science of nursing together in new and innovative ways that help patients and families heal,” said Cole Edmonson, M.S. R.N., F.A.C.H.E., N.E.A.-B.C., chief nursing officer and vice president of patient care services at Texas Health Dallas. “We are so grateful to have her as part of our professional nursing team.”

About Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas
Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas is an 866-bed acute care hospital and recognized clinical program leader, having provided compassionate care to the residents of Dallas and surrounding communities since 1966. U.S. News and World Report has ranked Texas Health Dallas among the nation’s best hospitals in digestive disorders, orthopedics, and neurology and neurosurgery. An affiliate of the faith-based, nonprofit Texas Health Resources system, Texas Health Dallas has approximately 4,000 employees and an active medical staff of more than 1,000 physicians. For more information, call 1-877-THR-WELL, or visit TexasHealth.org/Dallas.