UVM Health Network

A Family's Journey of Hope Highlights Reasons Behind UVM NICU's Excellence Award

The NICU, known for its exceptional care and dedication, recently received the prestigious 2023 Press Ganey Human Experience Guardian of Excellence Award.


BURLINGTON, Vt., – In March of 2022, Melissa and Christopher Fitzhugh's lives took an unexpected and frightening turn. Their daughter, Heidi, made her grand entrance into the world at just 25 weeks, three full months ahead of schedule. Weighing just 1 pound, 8.7 ounces, Heidi's premature birth was the beginning of an intense, emotional journey for the Fitzhugh family at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

Fitzhugh family looking in windows of UVM Children's Hospital NICU
Fitzhugh baby in the UVM Children's NICU bed.

The NICU, known for its exceptional care and dedication, recently received the prestigious 2023 Press Ganey Human Experience Guardian of Excellence Award. The recognition places the UVM Children’s Hospital among the top 5% of health care providers nationwide for patient experience, underscoring their unwavering commitment to clinical excellence and empathetic patient care.

Melissa vividly recalls the overwhelming emotions and decisions that came with Heidi's early arrival. "I never thought I'd be discussing the survival of my newborn," she says. The situation was fraught with uncertainty, but the high-risk pregnancy team, led by Dr. David Jones, provided reassurance with their calm and thorough approach.

The Fitzhughs' story is not just about the challenges of premature birth but also about the extraordinary care and support they received. The NICU staff delivers their award-winning care in a confined environment, and the award demonstrates their remarkable adaptability and dedication. The team's ability to provide top-notch care in less-than-ideal conditions is a testament to their professionalism and commitment to their young patients and their families.

"Winning this award, considering all of our space issues, feels even more special because we are continually reconfiguring our space to meet our patient and their family’s needs,” says Natalie Clark, RN, the NICU’s assistant nurse manager.

The staff look forward to a small-scale renovation happening soon. The renovation is intended to improve the patient and family experience even more.Two new isolation rooms will be added  raising the number to three – to the existing NICU footprint. This renovation is made possible in large part due to a $1 million donation made by New England Federal Credit Union in 2018. This gift was originally intended to help fund a brand new NICU, which remains a goal but is many years away due to financial and space constraints.

Christopher says the NICU staff immediately eased their anxiety and fear when they arrived. "Seeing the nurses and nurse practitioners in action, I knew we were in good hands," he says. This sentiment is echoed by Melissa, who found comfort in the kindness and compassion shown by the entire team. "The care we received was nothing short of amazing," she says. “From the start, the kindness we experienced, the compassion – we fell in love with the team.”

Fitzhugh family poses with their premature baby, Heidi, at the UVM Children's HospitalNICU
Melissa Fitzhugh holds her newborn at the UVM Children's Hospital NICU.

Heidi's journey in the NICU is a testament to the power of professional, dedicated medical care. Over 96 days, the Fitzhughs watched their daughter grow stronger, witnessing firsthand the NICU staff's commitment to each baby's health and well-being. The team's patience and ability to explain complex medical situations in understandable terms were invaluable to the family's experience.

The impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic also impacted the Fitzhughs’ experience. With restrictions in place, only Melissa and Christopher could visit Heidi regularly, while other family members had to content themselves with glimpses through a window. That underscored the importance of the emotional support provided by the NICU staff, turning a clinical setting into a comforting space for the family.

Heidi at the beach playing in the sand.

Now, at about a year and a half old, Heidi, affectionately known as 'Smiles,' is a vibrant and joyful child. Her early challenges seem like a distant memory as she hits developmental milestones, much to the delight of her family. "She's the happiest baby you'll ever meet," Melissa says. Heidi's love for books, her inquisitive nature, and her special bond with her older brother Connor are sources of constant joy for the family.

The connections formed in the NICU have extended beyond the hospital walls. The Fitzhughs and the NICU staff continue to share a special bond, with nurses and caregivers visiting Heidi at home, baking cookies, and playing together. The ongoing relationships underscore the deep impact of the NICU team's care and dedication.

“The connections we made are really remarkable,” Melissa says.

The Fitzhugh family's journey highlights the power of hope, resilience, and the remarkable impact of high-quality medical care. As Heidi continues to grow and thrive, her story is a testament to the exceptional care provided by the UVM Children’s Hospital NICU, a team now recognized for their outstanding patient experience and clinical excellence.

About The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital 
From the maternity unit to the emergency department and from our Children’s Specialty Center to our pediatric primary care clinics, The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital offers a welcoming child and family-friendly atmosphere with high-quality pediatric care. In partnership with The University of Vermont Medical Center, The Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine and the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital delivers expert care grounded in the latest research to residents throughout Vermont and northern New York. It is fully accredited by the Children’s Hospital Association. For more information, please visit www.uvmhealth.org/childrens or contact us at 802- 847-0000.