After doctors told Gary and Jocelyn Doyens that they wouldn’t be able to save the life of their 2-month-old daughter, Caroline, the couple and their 3-year-old son gathered by her bedside to say goodbye.
The wheels squeaked as hospital staff rolled over a cloth partition to separate them from the other families in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital. Their nurse disconnected their premature baby from the machines that had been keeping her alive.
“What was terrible about the cloth partition, it signaled to all the parents in the room that something was bad. They were asked to leave the room,” Jocelyn says. “You wanted to hold onto your baby as long as you could. You knew you had to let go eventually because parents had to come back in the room to see their babies. And so, there was really no place for us to go.”
The nurse who had cared for their daughter held her briefly, then gave her back to Jocelyn.
“And then I realized,” says Jocelyn, her voice cracking, “that fathers needed to hold their babies too, and I gave her to Gary. She took her last breath in her dad’s arms.”
Aware that other families wanted to return to their babies, the couple felt rushed packing up and leaving – without their daughter. While the Doyens felt the medical staff took excellent care of their family, the New Haven couple wanted to do something to express their appreciation and protect others from their fate.
“For us, we decided that the one thing we wished we had was a private space, where we didn’t feel rushed, where we could cry, where we could take our time,” Gary says 20 years later.
They wanted to provide a peaceful, home-like room within the Yale-New Haven Children’s NICU where parents could have private conversations with their doctors, caregivers and spiritual advisers. Through donations and a fundraiser, they worked with a designer to outfit a room to comply with hospital regulations while looking and feeling like a living room. Friends suggested calling it Caroline’s Room.
Thanks to a federal grant, 11 hospitals in seven states contain Caroline’s Rooms, including one at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford.
Nearly 500,000 babies are born prematurely in North America (the U.S. and Canada) annually, according to the March of Dimes. In an average week in Connecticut, 64 babies – or one in 11 – are born prematurely. In 2016, 9.4 percent of babies born in Connecticut were premature, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Nationally, 9.8 percent were premature.
At Connecticut Children’s NICU, babies lie in isolates several yards apart, with each baby connected to monitors. Visiting parents hold their babies in their arms or, if infants can’t leave the isolate, parents extend a hand through a side opening so their baby can grasp a finger.