Hospital restrictions leave baby without family visits

By Amy Martin
Megan Watts was denied permission to see her granddaughter Claire, inset, in Canberra Hospital. Pictures: Keegan Carroll, Supplied

Plenty of families have been separated over the past 18 months, however, it is particularly heartbreaking when it concerns a four-month-old.

Baby Claire, last name withheld, entered the world 12 weeks early - weighing only 500 grams - on September 2.

Claire, a micro-preemie, has spent her life in the Canberra Hospital's neonatal intensive care ward and special care nursery. COVID-19 restrictions have meant she has also only met her parents, with only two designated visitors allowed into the ward at separate times.

However, even Claire's daily visits from her parents were interrupted on the weekend after her father woke up with a sore throat on Sunday. Under advice from the hospital, he went to get a PCR test, meaning the family needed to isolate until they received a test result, longer if that result was positive.

This left Claire alone in the special care nursery, barring the nurses looking after her. After getting a call from Claire's mother, Cate, the baby's grandmother, Megan Watts sought special permission from the hospital to visit her granddaughter.

Megan Watts tried to gain access to see her granddaughter in Canberra Hospital after her daughter and son-in-law had to isolate due to COVID. Picture: Keegan Carroll

"In the first few months of life it is incredibly important that babies develop a strong attachment to their primary caregivers, which is why her parents need to spend as much time as possible at the hospital," Ms Watts said.

"So I rang the hospital to ask, 'What's the process? There is a very real risk here that Claire will be alone, bar the nursing staff, for 72 hours or longer. Can I come in'?"

After being put through to the team leader, Ms Watts was told to visit Claire she would need permission from the parents.

"So Cate rang the hospital straight away and gave permission and the hospital said, 'OK, great. We'll figure out what paperwork we need and we'll get back to you'," Ms Watts said.

An hour later, the parents were informed Ms Watts would not be allowed to visit Claire.

A Canberra Health Services spokesperson said the visitor policy for the neonatal intensive care ward and special care nursery since December 26 was that one parent plus one other person from the same household could visit at separate times.

"If both the designated visitors are isolating then the family can nominate another visitor," the spokesperson said.

"That visitor can then become the designated visitor until the family can return to neonatal intensive care ward/special care nursery. The family is required to notify the hospital staff of their request, which must be documented."

The spokesperson said all that was required of the family was a phone call to the neonatal intensive care unit or special care nursery, for staff to note the change in designated visitor on the baby's records.

Four-month-old Claire was born 12 weeks early, and is yet to meet most of her family. Picture: Supplied

The same process was in place if one or both parents were COVID-positive.

While the spokesperson could not comment on specific cases due to privacy reasons, they said: "This request would only be denied if the additional family member was isolating due to COVID-19."

Ms Watts said while she understood the need for restrictions in a pandemic, she wished there had been some consistency in the information given by the hospital staff.

Last weekend was the second time the family had gotten its hopes up for family visitation. On Christmas Day, while Cate was visiting Claire, a nurse said her five-year-old son Thomas could come to meet his sister for the first time.

"Cate rang the family Christmas party. She was on speakerphone, and Thomas was sitting next to his dad, so he had heard it," Ms Watts said.

"Then an hour-and-a-half later another team member came to see Cate, who was still at the hospital and said Thomas couldn't come in, after all."

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