As the executive director of Nurses for Newborns, Melinda Ohlemiller sees the struggles families face first-hand. “The families that we serve are in need in ways many of us could not imagine,” she says, recalling a recent home visit where a 4-year-old sibling sat on her lap and asked if she had a pencil. “She was so grateful; she had nothing to write with. We take a pencil for granted, and we take diapers for granted.” But despite the lack of basic necessities, “we also see incredible resiliency,” Ohlemiller notes. “Some of these families are beaten down, but they stand up, pick themselves up and move on. We want to be part of the solution. That’s our mission, to support them.”
Ohlemiller says one of the main goals when working with families is prevention. Nurses make home visits to families, ideally starting before the baby is even born. Weekly visits continue for at least four to six weeks after birth, and can remain as frequent as the family needs, depending on their individual circumstances.
“For example, one of the things our nurses work with families on is, how do you soothe a crying infant? No one is born with that knowledge; it’s an acquired skill. Particularly babies born early tend to be irritable, and the family can face a lot of stress.” Add to that compounding factors such as having lost health insurance, and dealing with enormous bills from days or weeks spent in the NICU—financial troubles that can lead to families who are also struggling to pay their rent or mortgage. “They are in danger of making choices they would later regret. That’s why we’re here to get ahead of it. Our goal is babies who are alive and well, and parents who are functioning well in their role in those early days, because that prevents a world of hurt.”
On each visit, a nurse provides a head-to-toe assessment of the baby, and also provides safety education for the other family members. Nurses make sure that the family is developing a relationship with a doctor, check that breastfeeding is going well or that families understand how to properly make formula, and also focus on the caregivers’ needs. Seeing the family in their home environment often helps nurses remedy situations that in-office doctor visits could never foresee, Ohlemiller notes. “We’ve gone into homes and found babies sleeping on the coffee table or on a floor, or in a chair in the dining room—not because the families don’t love their babies, but either because they don’t have knowledge about safe sleeping or they don’t have the resources.” She adds that one of the most in-demand items on the nonprofit’s wish list is Pack ‘n Plays portable cribs.
“Parenting is one of the hardest jobs we’ll ever do. It’s humbling even for families who have resources,” Ohlemiller says. At the hospital, families have a support system of doctors and nurses surrounding them, especially if the baby has health problems. But when the baby comes home, “there’s no one to call—that’s where we step in.” Ohlemiller says some of the most rewarding situations happen when they find out that mothers they served years ago have decided to go to nursing school. “Those are the best stories,” she says. “The nurses can provide modeling for young moms who have never had that, or never thought about the possibilities for themselves.”
Nurses for Newborns is hosting its annual fundraising gala on April 21 at the Hilton St. Louis Frontenac, with presenting sponsor Ameren Missouri. Tom and Suzanne Hough of Carrollton Bank will be honored with the McGraw Milhaven Award for their longtime support of the nonprofit. “They’re so connected with our mission and so generous, and yet ask nothing in return,” Ohlemiller says, adding, “It’s our largest fundraiser of the year, and the money we raise provides precious funds for families who have no other means.”
On the Cover
Nurses for Newborns hosts its annual gala on April 21 at the Hilton St. Louis Frontenac. Individual tickets are available for $125. Pictured on the cover: Nurse Jennifer Crowell, Eileen Hamburg, Tom and Suzanne Hough, nurse Tiffany Butler. For more information, call 544-3433 or visit nfnf.org.