Nursing professor has focused her career on helping the tiniest patients
By Mina Radman
As a nursing student, Leslie Parker, Ph.D., A.R.N.P., thought she would become a midwife. Soon after graduation, however, she began working in the neonatal intensive care unit, where she found her calling. She’s been helping care for newborns ever since.
Parker, a nurse practitioner in the NICU and a clinical assistant professor in the College of Nursing, recently accepted a National Institutes of Health grant to begin a four-year study to study the feeding options for newborns who are born prematurely. Newborns born before 32 weeks gestation cannot suck or swallow the way babies typically do, so they are fed through a tube, which runs from the nose or mouth to the stomach. Breast milk or formula is given through the tube. Prior to each feeding, nurses pull back on a syringe that is attached to the tube, allowing them to assess the amount and appearance of the formula or breast milk that remains in the baby’s stomach.
“Feeding decisions are often made based upon what remains in the infant’s stomach,” Parker said. “We might decide to make changes in the amount of formula or breast milk we administer. Unfortunately there is very little evidence in the literature on how feeding decisions should be made based on the residual formula or breast milk remaining in the stomach.”
The study will follow the feeding patterns of 120 premature infants in the NICU. Half of the babies will get routine evaluation of the formula or breast milk remaining in their stomachs and the other half will not. The two groups will be compared to see whether assessment of residual gastric contents is a safe and/or necessary procedure.
“We will see whether we are providing optimal care to these critically ill infants or whether our procedures need to be changed,” Parker said.
Parker became interested in studying the care of premature infants when she found there was limited information about how to provide optimal nutrition to the most vulnerable patients.
“Nutrition is the basis for all the care we provide to infants, so it’s the avenue I wanted to investigate,” she said.
Parker, a lifelong Gainesville resident, attended nursing school at UF and worked at UF Health Shands Hospital while studying for her master’s and doctoral degrees. She encourages nursing students to be open-minded because the nursing field will experience large changes in the next few decades. She said that her specialty, neonatology, a component of pediatrics that focuses on the care of newborns, is a young, growing field.
“There’s a lot of progress to be made,” she said, “and a lot of questions to be answered.”