Prior to the 1950s, neonatal jaundice was a common problem and one of the leading causes of death in premature infants — that is, until a British nurse made a fortuitous discovery.
Sister Jean Ward, whose reputation for excellence in rearing puppies landed her a job running the preemie unit at Rochford General Hospital in Essex, England, was a “keen” believer in the restorative effects of fresh air and sunshine and on warm days would wheel the frailer infants into the hospital’s sunny courtyard.
Not wanting to raise any eyebrows with her unorthodox practice, Ward would usually scurry the babies back inside to their incubators before the hospital’s pediatricians made their rounds.
But one afternoon in 1956, Ward ushered a group of doctors over and sheepishly showed them the preemie in her care. The infant was pale yellow from head to toe, except for one deeply bronzed triangle of skin.
Mystified, one of the doctors asked if she had painted that portion of the baby’s skin with iodine. It wasn’t a paint job, Ward assured him. The darker patch of jaundiced skin had been covered up by the corner of a sheet while the infant was outside. It was the rest of the infant’s yellowish skin that had faded, she explained, apparently from the sun exposure.
Ward’s astute observations helped to pave the way for phototherapy treatments that are still used today to treat infants suffering from hyperbilirubinemia — and she’s just one of many nurses whose bedside discoveries have revolutionized the way we care for patients.
Other groundbreaking nurse inventions, as noted in this 2014 Medscape article, include everything from disposable sanitary napkins to crash carts to ostomy bags to disposable baby bottles. It was also a nurse, who in 1911, created the first mannequin to function as a patient simulator for nurses in training — and newer generations of nurse inventors and researchers are tackling other vexing problems in health care.
With hospital-acquired infections on the rise, Ginny Porowski worried about the health hazard created by waste bins overflowing with contaminated isolation gowns — a common sight on any floor with patients on contact precautions. So a few years ago, the North Carolina nurse invented a new type of gown that can be disposed of more easily. Unlike the typical isolation gear, Porowski’s GoGown has a special inside panel allowing the wearer to wrap a used gown into a small, compact bundle for safer disposal. Health care providers never have to touch the outside of the gown and used bundles sink to the bottom of the trash container, rather than billowing out the top.
A Chicago-area nurse’s research, meanwhile, is changing the way some Illinois hospitals approach newborns’ first baths.
Courtney Buss, an RN at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin, Illinois had been hearing a lot of buzz about the benefits of delaying a newborn’s first bath for at least eight to 24 hours, but she was unable to find much in the way hard evidence supporting the “wait-to-bathe” approach. Looking for answers, she decided to conduct her own investigation.
At most hospitals, newborns typically receive a sponge bath soon after birth to remove the white, waxy, cheese-like substance called vernix caseosa that covers their body. But Buss’s 2016 study showed that leaving the protective layer of vernix intact for at least 14 hours can dramatically reduce bouts of hypothermia and hypoglycemia in newborns.
Over the course of nine months, as bathing was delayed, Buss found that the percentage of infants suffering from hypothermia dropped from nearly 30% to 7% and hypoglycemia rates plummeted from 21% to 4%, according to the Chicago Tribune. Delayed bathing also dramatically improved breastfeeding rates among the babies because the vernix helps neonates pick up on their mother’s scent, which makes latching easier.
The hospital system where Buss works has since instituted a “wait to bathe” policy at half its hospitals and her research underscores what the nursing profession has long known — that important discoveries aren’t restricted to those in white lab coats. Innovative scientists also wear scrubs and even answer call bells.