Spend 44 years in any profession, you’re bound to see plenty of changes along the way.

Exciting developments in technology. Advancements in knowledge. Deeper understandings of patient care.

Nurses Liga Ruperts, Carol Bos and Pat Gravelyn have had a front row to all the changes in the world of nursing over the past four decades, ever since graduating together from the Butterworth School of Nursing in 1978.

They began their careers working side by side in the Gerber Foundation Neonatal Center at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

To this day, they still work together.

And in all that time, there’s one thing that has never changed: Their love for the littlest patients.

You really have to love babies to work in the neonatal center, Gravelyn said.

Not just kids, but babies.

“I knew I loved the neo unit right from the get-go,” Gravelyn said. “I couldn’t imagine at that time ever leaving. So I guess it’s no surprise I’m still here.”

Bos echoed the sentiment.

“I just love what I do,” she said. “I love working with the babies and families. And my friends, too.”

Given that the NICU now has more than 250 nurses in the unit, the three women don’t work together quite so often these days.

“We do spend a lot of weekends and holidays together, only in the NICU,” Bos said. “It’s kind of like your work family.”

And as one might expect, they’ve developed a special bond over their storied careers.

“It’s easier working with these ladies, as we just know each other so well,” Ruperts said.

When they do work together, they know how to share a laugh—especially in the break room.

“We all came here together,” Gravelyn said. “It’s always fun and relaxing working with the girls I know.”

There is an extended NICU family that gets together monthly to catch up and stay connected.

“It’s called the lunch bunch,” Bos said. “The group was created by a retired physician and consists of some retired staff and others still working in the NICU.”

‘It just grabbed my heart’

When they first began their jobs, there were only four nurseries at Butterworth Hospital.

“We now have our own floor and a private side with 12 nurseries and an overflow unit on the 10th floor,” Ruperts said. “We started with about 30 or 40 babies on our unit, and it has grown to more than 100 on any given day.”

The three wouldn’t change a thing about the path they chose.

“You have to love what you do, no matter where you are or what you do,” Ruperts said. “If you don’t, you’re not doing the best you can do for yourself or your patients.”

Ruperts especially enjoys connecting with former patients and their families who drop by the hospital from time to time.

“One little guy went home on a vent and feeding tube,” she said. “Three years later, he got his trach out. And I stopped in to visit.

“It was the best day for that family. To be doing well and thriving is just fantastic.”

Bos said she has experienced similar heartfelt moments, and oftentimes in the most unlikely of places.

“I was at the local Chevrolet dealer and this guy came over to me and asked if I was Carol,” she said. “I had cared for his son and he recognized me from across the way. He thanked me for caring for his son. It was a really great feeling. It made me feel special that they were so thankful.”

There weren’t many neonatal centers when they first started in nursing, Gravelyn said.

“They would let us come and work as techs and feed babies on the weekend,” she said. “And my love for the NICU grew from there. It just grabbed my heart.”

Bos agreed.

“I loved neo from the start, and I still do,” she said. “And here I am more than 40 years later.”

Nurse manager Maggie Simons said many of her team members have been here for years.

“A lot of people working in the NICU have been here more than 20 years,” she said. “I feel very fortunate to have such seniority in the unit. You can teach as much as you want, but years of experience is priceless.”

Ruperts said it’s fun to joke with the younger nurses and share stories about how nurses performed their work without the help of modern technology.

“They all say, ‘How did you function like that?’” Ruperts said. “And I tell them we had only our eyes as monitors.”

A life of learning

Decades ago, nurses had to rig adult equipment to fit the small babies.

These days, manufacturers have stepped up and developed unique, personalized equipment for little ones.

“Research and evidence-based care is pretty amazing nowadays,” Ruperts said. “There was little research back then. We did what seemed to work best. We can rely on monitors now, when we used to only have our eyes.”

Bos, too, has seen huge changes in the NICU over the years.

“We have learned a lot over the years and everything we have today is pretty amazing,” she said.

Another area that’s changed: visiting hours.

“We used to have strict visitor hours for parents,” Ruperts said. “Only a couple hours in the morning and a couple in the evening. We have open access for families and caregivers 24/7 now.”

For new nurses in the NICU, there’s always an adjustment period. Just as new parents must learn to care for a premature baby, newer nurses learn to provide the right care, too.

“When you first come to the unit, you start holding the bigger babies,” Gravelyn said. “And little by little, we introduce you to the littles.”

Many nurses in the NICU serve as the primary caregivers for some of the babies. Sometimes, a baby’s stay can last six months to a year.

“You really get to know those families,” Gravelyn said. “And some bring their kids back for visits.”

Ruperts is frequently asked if she gets attached to the babies.

“I say, ‘No, they belong at home with their families,'” she said. “So many are looking forward to taking their little one home. Going-home day is the best. It’s a wonderful moment.

“We nurture them along until they can go home,” she said. “I love them while they are here, but they’re not mine.”

When asked how many babies they’ve cared for over their careers, they laughed as they tried to add it up.

“Oh gosh, a lot,” Bos said.

“I’d have to get the calculator out,” Ruperts said.