December 16, 2017

Mariano: Guardian angels

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Ray Mariano / For Worcester Sun

Nurses, from left, Janet Scanlon, Patti Wright and Anne Castonguay in the NICU.

Worcester Warriors is an occasional series. “Worcester is a great community, not because of its buildings but because of its people. From time to time, I will feature some of the people who work to make our community a better place to live. If you would like to recommend an individual or group to highlight, please contact me at” — Ray Mariano

Ray Mariano

They stand watch like guardian angels protecting and caring for infants so small and so vulnerable that it’s hard to imagine that, one day, these tiny spirits will most likely grow into chubby-cheeked little babies.

While nervous moms and dads hold their new child in their arms, some so small that they are measured in grams and not pounds, the parents of these little miracles look to the nurses in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) to fight to save their precious child’s future.

And more often than not, with the help of a staff of talented doctors, modern technology and the grace of God, they succeed.

Patti Wright has spent all of her 43-plus years as a nurse at the NICU (pronounced nick-u) at UMass Memorial Medical Center — Memorial Campus. She started the year the unit opened in 1974. Fresh out of nursing school, Patti said that she “had no idea what she was getting into.”

Prior to starting, she received no specialized training – nobody did. “Everybody was learning together,” she remembers. “I was scared to death. Back then, this was a new science.”

Memories of her first years are still with Patti. She remembers a preemie named Wendy who had blue eyes and light hair – although the hair color was hard to determine because in those days the infants’ heads were shaved for IV therapy. Wendy was her first tracheotomy patient.

“I would wake up in the middle of the night frightened, saying, “Someone put the lights on, her trach fell out and I can’t see to reinsert it,’ ” she recalled. Sadly, Wendy’s tiny lungs were so bad that the hospital staff could not save her.

Patti also remembers her first gastroschisis patient, a little girl named Angela who was born with her intestines outside of her body. In those days, the treatment was to hang the bowels in a bag above the infant and slowly push them back into the abdominal cavity. The entire process took a week. Happily, Angela would be okay.

And that is the joy of the job, says Patti. “We like to say that we are saving the child for a lifetime, giving that baby a chance at 60-70-80 years of life.”

When the unit first opened, the technology, medicine and treatments were very different than they are today. Back then, children born to mothers who had carried them for less than 30 weeks rarely survived. Today, a preterm infant as young as 23 weeks can survive – children so tiny that their diapers measure only about two to three inches wide.

According to Dr. Lawrence Rhein, division chief of Neonatology at UMass Medical School, “A 1-kg [2.2-pound] infant who was born in 1960 had a mortality risk of 95 percent but had a 95 percent probability of survival by 2000.”

Dr. Rhein says proudly, “We have some of the best survival rates and outcomes in the entire country. We have a world-class neonatal unit.”
He credits the staff for the unit’s success.

Children who come to the NICU may have respiratory distress syndrome, cardiac or bowel defects, various syndromes or chromosomal abnormalities. Many are born prematurely, with some weighing less than a pound. Some also come addicted to drugs. Those addicted face considerable suffering.

Anne Castonguay started in the NICU fresh out of nursing school just over 30 years ago. She often serves as a “primary,” a nurse who stays with a child throughout his or her hospitalization. Castonguay has stayed as long as eight or nine months with a baby while they work to send him or her home.

She said that one of the best parts of the job is when a parent comes back to the NICU “with a big, fat baby who has been thriving at home. I’m blessed to be able to do what I do.”

But Castonguay has also known the other side of the job, when the outcome was not so positive. She has watched new parents of twins celebrate the life-saving care given to a newborn while, at the same time, mourning the loss of their other child. Even with all the emotion that comes with the job, she says she “couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Erin Wright is not related to Patti. But she and her husband, Dan, called her “Nana Wright” as Patti cared for their daughter, Abigail. Known as “Little Miss Ladybug” when she was on a ventilator in the NICU, Abby is now an “incredibly healthy” 8-year-old who enjoys playing soccer.

But it wasn’t always that way. Abby was born prematurely at 25 weeks, weighing only one pound, 5 ounces. She needed four months in the NICU before she could be sent home.

“As parents, we were so shocked and scared,” Erin recalled. “We didn’t know how something this small could survive.”

Erin was quick to point out that the nurses of the NICU not only took care of Abby, they also took care of the parents. “All of the nurses were extremely caring and so informative,” she said. “They always took the time to explain the expectations for the day, for the week.”

“They were always so positive and confident. Their confidence made us feel so comfortable,” she said.

After a year as a nurse at a children’s hospital in Texas, Janet Scanlon came to Worcester and the NICU in 1988. She has been there ever since.

Janet has a lasting memory of triplets who were born when she was a young nurse. Born at 23 weeks, only one survived and he was blind. She was there in the delivery room when the triplets were born. She cared for them in the NICU and then when the one child was sent home, she cared for him there.

Each year on April 17, Janet has called her former charge – for the past 25 years. Today, that accomplished young man has graduated from college, been accepted into law school, climbed Machu Picchu in Peru, skis, surfs and testified successfully before Congress to secure funding for programs that support the blind. When she talks about him, you can see the pride in her face.

(Artwork by Janet Scanlon)

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Along with being an accomplished nurse, Janet has another distinct talent. She is an accomplished artist. Self-taught, she creates original watercolor art for the families. Most of her art depicts animals, often a baby with its mother.

One of the most poignant pieces she made into a card to give to a young mother who had lost her baby. It is a picture of a mother giraffe nuzzling her young calf.

The hospital has used Janet’s art to help make a guide for parents whose child was born addicted to drugs. The loving images she has created soften the guidance of a very difficult subject.

In addition to providing professional care for the infants, the nurses at the NICU do whatever it takes to provide a family-friendly atmosphere. Janet hand-paints unit walls with holiday themes for Christmas, Easter, Halloween and other occasions.

Nurses make Christmas cards for parents, complete with handprints or footprints from their tiny child. And every child, even the tiniest, gets a picture with Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus.

In the most frightening moments in a parent’s life, the nurses try to bring a sense of normalcy and hope to the new family.

For all of the nurses in the NICU, the greatest joy comes from sending the little ones home – and then to see a few of them as they grow. Some come back with their parents to say hello. Other parents who recognize the nurses outside of the hospital stop to say hello and to introduce them to the young child who was once in their care.

As you enter the NICU in the hospital on Belmont Street, there are huge poster boards with hundreds of pictures of healthy little babies, young children and some older children. All of them were once watched over, protected and cared for by these guardian angels – nurses who fought valiantly to help create a small miracle.

The children behind these pictures and thousands of others are why these nurses stand guard.

Editor’s note: We hope you enjoyed this free preview of Ray’s unique perspective and unmistakable candor. Be sure to check back in coming weeks to find out how you can keep on reading Worcester’s best commentary without becoming a Sun member when the preview ends.

Raymond V. Mariano is a Worcester Sun columnist. He comments on his hometown and global issues that impact it every Sunday in Worcester Sun. His column appears weekly in the Sun’s print edition, on newsstands Saturdays.

14 thoughts on “Mariano: Guardian angels

  1. I enjoyed reading this article thoroughly. The joy and sadness or these parents and the dedication or the doctors and nurses is described so well. The advances in technology are paramount. On a more personal level, I have a niece who was born weighing 2 pounds on Christmas Eve almost eight years ago. Our little miracle is perfectly healthy today. These babies are a perfect example of why we should protect life in the womb. Young women should be encouraged to put their babies up for adoption instead of aborting them if they are not able to raise them themselves. My niece was adopted by my brother and his wife. What a gift! What a joyful call they received that Christmas morning eight years ago. The gift of life is a precious miracle.

    • The column was about the nurses at the NICU not the NICU itself. There are many fine doctors, technicians, support staff and volunteers that make the unit so successful. But that was not what the column was about.

  2. What a wonderful article about the special department and people who work hard to save the lives of “littlest people!”

    On a personal note, 17 years ago this month I was at Memorial Hospital on the women’s health floor after staff had managed to stop my pre-term labor at 28 weeks. This was my first pregnancy. It was a hard fought pregnancy that only occured after 2 years of interventions and tests and artificial inseminations and more tests and, finally, 2 IVF cycles. They were twins, they were girls, they were named. I was terrified every monent, I cried a lot and I was on high does of Magnesium and bed rest to keep that labor at bay.

    But I had my own guardian angel, Patti Wright. She is one of the nurses featured in this article, she is my sister in law and in my heart. She would come and sit with me everu day and have her lunch with me on the days she had time for lunch! She brought be two beanie baby angels to protect Lillian and Paige, and she brought me comfort. I was very lucky. Due to the impeccable medical interventions I received at Memorial hospital (and a LOT of luck) our twins were born 7 weeks later, perfectly healy tiny tiny creatures.

    Our daughters did not have to go to the NICU unit, but I cannot overstate the comfort it was to me at that terrifying time in my life to know: that there was such an award winning facility down the road, and that if Patti is any indication of the staff there; my babies would have been cared for by people who really care about those tiny lives!

    I am thrilled to say that 17 years later Auntie Patti and Uncle Richard provided those same girls with their senior photo shoot as a graduation present; that yesterday they spent the day with us at Mechanics Hall watching Lillian “Lily” play flute with the Worcester Youth Symphony Orchestra, and that every year they come see Paige in the annual Musical Drama production at her high school.

    Thank you for applauding these hard working and dedicated men and women. It is a calling to care for the tiniest of us and to be able to continue to do so.

  3. Referring back to your previous week’s screed.
    “Others have used it…” may well be Ray. In my opinion it only proves that your fellow white bureaucrats know a good thing when they see it – using the law and policies (institutionalizing racism) not to mention their own police force, to intimidate, harass and disperse the people they consider the scum of the earth.
    Haven’t seen any WHA residents praising your program Ray, just law enforcement and white bureaucrats. Praise can be bought, criticism is free.
    Did you ever receive any recognition from non-white bureaucrats or groups praising your work?

    • It’s hard to imagine how one person can be wrong so consistently. First, our program was designed based on a program we investigated at the Atlanta Housibg Authority. It was designed by African-Americans, run by African-Anericans for African-Americans. As to praise from residents, we have had numerous positive testimonials from residents published in the Telegram and other local and national media.

  4. Consistenty wrong? Look in a mirror Mariano.
    So the idea was not yours but you took full credit for it, touted it as it was your baby and got accolades from white liberals, white bureaucrats, and white politicians, but not a peep from Blacks or Hispanics? Did any Worcester Blacks or Hispanics have a say in the implementation of that racist system? Was the city’s WHA Commission (historically populated by whites) also guilty in institutionalizing racism in an already racist Worcester?
    So a system designed by “African Americans” from Atlanta GA implemented in liberal MA, a system based on intimidation to control Blacks and Hispanics. How ironic.
    Didn’t you recently write that all southerners are racists (I’m assuming you as a MA liberal believe all southern whites are racists based on a week long drive through “the South”, but Blacks of course can’t be racist as defined by your politics). Ironically you implemented a system designed by Blacks to intimidate and control Blacks and Hispanics at the hands of a white liberal. Ironic.
    You still don’t see that you’re a contradiction, a white apologist who ran an organization that preyed on Blacks and Hispanics all with the approval of an all white city council, white city manager, local white politicians, white city bureaucrats and white state bureaucrats? I miss anyone?

    • I would need an entire column just to correct all of your inaccuracies. But, happy to see that you read my column every week. See you next week.

      • I don’t see your fans denying my accusations.
        Inaccuracies? Why don’t you deal with my accusations in a whole column then? What are you afraid of? You have plenety of time on your hands.

      • Ray, the guy’s got a point, several in fact that challenge your no so credible credibility. Time to put up or shut up. Let the games begin.

        • There are literally two dozens articles and news stories posted on the WHA web site that respond to the issue. Some of these I wrote, others were written or reported by outside news agencies including The National Review, Fox News, Governing Magazine, Huffington Post, Washington Times, Boston Globe, CommonWealth Magazine, Telegram etc.

          There are also reports by researchers from Boston University’s School of Public Health who followed participants in our program.

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