Cover Stories

Safety Net: Nurses for Newborns

The photos can be seen from anywhere in Melinda Ohlemiller’s office. “I keep them in my line of sight,” she says of the images of her two baby sons, hooked to oxygen following their premature births. “That way, I always remember why I’m doing this.” Ohlemiller is chief executive officer of Nurses for Newborns, the home visitation program best known for providing support to medically fragile infants and their families for up to two years. The organization also supports pregnant mothers and any family in need in the early days post birth. Her sons are now robust young men, but Ohlemiller knows all too well how risky the first year can be, especially when there are additional challenges in the home.

“Adjusting to a new baby can be hard at the best of times,” Ohlemiller says. “But when there are factors like extreme poverty or postpartum depression, it can be crippling for a family.” The NFN program was founded by nurse Sharon Rohrbach who worked at St. Anthony’s Medical Center and was concerned about the number of babies who did not stay healthy, or died, after release from the hospital. The organization has provided a safety net for babies in our region since 1991. In the course of a single year, the team of nurses serves nearly 3,000 babies and their families, providing everything from simple supplies—diapers, formula, cribs, car seats and high chairs—to infant health screenings and more comprehensive guidance for mothers in the grip of depression or domestic violence.

ofc_nurses-for-newborns_1-14“There is need everywhere, in every zip code,” Ohlemiller says. “We cast our net widely, but focus our efforts in areas where there are historic inequities. In the shadow of some of the world’s finest hospitals, we have babies dying at a similar rate as those in developing nations.” Although every zip code in the city has received NFN help, she says more than 90 percent of the families the nurses see live in ‘abject poverty.’

Hannah Shanks is one mother who says she could not have coped without the organization. Her little boy, Ezra, was delivered early by emergency C-section after Shanks was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a dangerous, progressive disease that puts both mother and baby at risk. “When Ezra finally came home (after two weeks in the NICU), my anxiety was very, very high,” Shanks recalls. “Those first 48 hours, my heart was in my throat. But I kept telling myself there was a nurse coming and when she arrived, it was an incredible relief.” Shanks says initially nurse Jenny came every two weeks, not only addressing the needs of mother and baby, but those of Shanks’ husband as well. “While I was only focused on my child, he was worrying about me and my healing. Having that extra support for him was vital, too,” Shanks says. The family received NFN services for five months and Shanks, a contractor for a number of local nonprofits, now serves on the NFN Young Professionals Board.

In addition to nurses, NFN has social workers and community health workers who provide additional resources for families. This might mean helping to secure housing or health insurance, or simply breaking down communication barriers in cases where English may not be the first language. “In a nutshell, we provide the wraparound services for maintaining a family’s overall health,” Ohlemiller says. And all of it comes free of charge.

But Ohlemiller explains that while preventing infant mortality is a mission for many, the nurses are paid professionals. “It’s simple math,” she says. “The more money we raise, the more nurses we can hire, and the more babies we can save.” To that end, the nonprofit hosts its 19th annual Night for Newborns dinner auction March 4 at The Sheldon concert hall. David and Thelma Steward are honorary chairs, and World Wide Technology is the presenting sponsor.

Pictured: Ezra with his mom, Hannah Shanks
Photos courtesy of Hannah Shanks

Nurses for Newborns hosts its 19th annual Night for Newborns dinner auction March 4 at The Sheldon concert hall. David and Thelma Steward are honorary chairs; World Wide Technology is the presenting sponsor. Pictured on the cover: Gwen Stubblefield, R.N., Thelma and David Steward, and Jenny Uhlig, R.N. For tickets and more information, visit nursesfornewborns.org.

Cover design by Julie Streiler | Cover photo by Colin Miller of Strauss Peyton Photography

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