Good WorksPassion Project

Ambassadors of Health

By Katie Morell

The NICU at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto welcomes a clinical psychologist, thanks to efforts by its affiliated organization.

Starting in September, parents with children in the neonatal intensive care unit at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto will have an additional level of mental health support: a full-time clinical psychologist.

The psychologist will take residence in the hospital’s Johnson Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Services. Funding for the position is thanks to the efforts of grassroots organization Ambassadors for Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, launched more than a dozen years ago by Ashley Hunter and Molly Gibbons, who wanted to contribute to the hospital but didn’t fall into the category of an institutional donor. Nor did they have time to volunteer several hours per week.

“We were just a group of moms who wanted to support the children’s hospital, so we put together a ‘lunch and learn’ with a doctor and invited all of our friends,” Hunter remembers, adding that the organization was launched with the name Circle of Friends before rebranding a few years later. “We sent out an invite and thought maybe 30 people would come. More than 350 people showed up.”

The group was soon formalized, based on a membership model (“members donate an amount meaningful to their family,” says Esther Levy, current co-president along with Amy Burnett), and since then it has hosted multiple yearly events, each geared toward supporting children in the hospital. Efforts include raising money for an annual Fund A Need, a campaign for a specific need at the hospital. Past Fund A Needs have helped bring on a pediatric fellow in the Stanford Emergency Department and the funding of a teen mental health initiative.

Esther Levy and Amy Burnett are the dedicated co-presidents of the grassroots organization Ambassadors for Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, launched more than a dozen years ago in Palo Alto. (Doug Peck)

This year, ambassadors decided to raise money to hire a clinical psychologist dedicated specifically to helping parents with children in the NICU — a need Dr. Richard Shaw strongly supports. Shaw is the hospital’s medical director of pediatric psychosomatic medicine, and says 30 to 40 percent of parents will developmental disorders after having a baby in the NICU.

Importantly, Shaw notes, the impact of untreated mental health conditions in parents can have lifelong effects on entire families.

“It can take the form of being triggered by the ping of an elevator or cash register, bringing NICU flashbacks, and it can lead to increased rates of depression and substance abuse on behalf of both parents,” he says. “But one of the biggest impacts of not getting help is how adults parent.”

Those who have PTSD tend to become very anxious and overprotective, always expecting something bad to happen to their children. They over utilize health care and — especially mothers — will feel guilty about a premature birth, blaming themselves. They will overcompensate by not setting limits on their babies. As a result, their babies grow up with problems and they become psychosomatic themselves. “Children [of parents with untreated PTSD] often develop vulnerable child syndrome, which can have an impact on their lives forever,” he says.

Shaina Quinn knows firsthand the importance of having a clinical psychologist. In May 2017, at just 25 weeks pregnant, her water broke. Quinn’s fear was immediate.

“I had two prior miscarriages and knew my baby would need to be delivered, but that it was too early,” she remembers. “I felt so scared.” After 11 days at Lucile Packard, she gave birth to her son Theo via emergency C-section. When he came out, he cried, which Quinn found to be a miracle. But then heartbreak sank in. “I didn’t get to hold him or see him; he was just whisked away to the NICU,” she says. “We ended up being there for 100 days. My husband and I would visit Theo morning, noon and night.”

Theo showed signs of improvement during those 100 days, but each one was emotionally brutal for Quinn and her husband.

Day by day, Theo became stronger. Today, more than two years later, he is doing great. Quinn, who spoke at the ambassadors’ “lunch and learn” in the spring, is passionate about the need fora mental health professional specifically for parents in the NICU.

“I think having a clinical psychologist would serve not only the moms, but also the dads, who often feel out of control and want to fix things,” she says. “Having someone like that on staff, I’m sure, will do wonders for people who don’t even know they need the help.”

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