Harris' Heroes: Claire Pagano cares for premature babies at Inova Fairfax

(WJLA) - When a baby is born weighing only one pound, they need all the medical help they can get. Claire Pagano has made it her life’s work to give premature babies the best chance at their own lives.

With the lights low and the incubators warm, Pagano keeps close watch over the 85 premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at Inova Children’s Hospital in Falls Church, Va.{ }

“This particular baby is receiving respiratory support because the baby is not completely able to breathe on his own,” she says.

After years as a pediatric nurse, Pagano now often works 12-hour days as the NICU’s patient care director.

“For reasons we don’t completely understand, babies are born as small as one pound, very prematurely, and so if you think about a term baby being born at 40 weeks, we have babies born as small as 23 weeks,” she says.

Pagano says some of the babies are in the NICU for a few weeks while some are there for as long as six months.

Caring for the tiny babies like they’re her own, Pagano also showers their worried parents with care and attention.

“There is nothing easy about being here with your son and having to go home at night and leave hi,” says Rachel, a new mother.

Rachel's son Zachary was born at 26 weeks.

“Claire has been a great support since we’ve been here since day one,” Rachel says. “[She] has just given us such peace that we can go home and sleep at night and not feel like we have to call all night long.”

Pagano also makes sure the NICU’s 250 nurses have everything they need.

“She really sets the tone for everything that happens in this NICU,” says Sara Donahue, the March of Dimes family support specialist.

“The compassion for the patients and families we care for, that is at the center of everything we do and every decision we make,” Pagano says.

Under Pagano, who has two children of her own, the NICU at Inova Fairfax has become one of the largest and most recognized NICU’s in the entire country.