Carmen Henke first had the urge to work with new babies when she was visiting her father at Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina. She was 11 or 12 and spent a lot of time there, sometimes taking a break to peek into the newborn nursery.

Three years later, she joined the Medical Explorers program at Fairview Ridges Hospital in Burnsville, then began volunteering in its nursery. Henke got her nursing assistant certificate, went to work in that nursery and in the obstetrical unit. "And from there, everything just kind of snowballed," she said. "By the time I went to into (nursing) school, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a neonatal nurse practitioner."

Henke got her bachelor's degree in nursing from Bethel University, did an externship in the neonatal intensive care unit at Children's Hospitals & Clinics in St. Paul and landed an NICU job right out of school in 2000.

High demand for neonatal nurses

The job market for new nurses is tighter now, but the demand for neonatal nurse practitioners is "humongous," according to Marlene Wuethrich, director of the neonatal nurse practitioner master's degree program at St. Catherine University in St. Paul (

Applicants must have at least two years of NICU nursing experience. Students learn in-depth assessment, diagnosis and treatment, managing the baby's transition to life outside the womb. Their program includes 650 hours of NICU clinical experience. By the end, these students are caring for the sickest babies in the unit.

"Babies aren't little people," Wuethrich explained. "Their pathophysiology and their physiology are different. Their kidneys don't work the same. They don't metabolize drugs the same."

How they work

Neonatal nurse practitioners are certified and licensed to diagnose and prescribe medication, and work in concert with neonatologists. Their degree of independence depends upon the hospital, according to Wuethrich. They may start at $60,000 a year and earn up to $120,000 with experience.

Henke now supervises 20 neonatal nurse practitioners at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale ( and its sister institution, Maple Grove Hospital ( Those NICUs primarily care for premature babies, who may stay in the unit up to six months. Other NICU patients' conditions may include respiratory distress, hypoglycemia, jaundice, heart conditions, metabolic disorders, chromosomal abnormalities, viral or bacterial infections or hydrocephalus.

"Each day is different, with a new set of challenges," Henke said. "That's why I love it."