When Kate Robson talks to parents of premature babies, she can’t help but draw from her own experience. She delivered both of her children early, and knows how scary each day with a preemie can be. “In order to help families, I have to go back to the most difficult moments of my life,” she says. Her first child, Maggie, was born at only 25 weeks and spent more than four months in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) suffering from heart, lung, intestinal and eye issues. Her second daughter, Grace, was born at 33 weeks and also spent time in the NICU.
Having a parent volunteer to talk to is what helped Robson cope after the births of her daughters. She eventually became a volunteer in the unit herself, which morphed into her current role as parent coordinator at Sunnybrook Health Science Centre’s NICU in Toronto. “The fact that I had two different experiences with babies of different gestational ages was important,” Robson says. Now Robson helps parents deal with the stresses surrounding premature births and collaborates with hospital staff and parents to plan educational programs for those with premature babies. She also visits expectant mothers in the high-risk unit, who are anticipating a preterm birth. “We have tea together — it’s a great opportunity to talk, so they know what to expect before they enter the NICU. I want moms and dads to know they’re not alone and to support them as they learn to be the best parents they can be,” Robson says.
She also helped create a website for the hospital’s NICU families and staff, maintains a blog with parent contributors (nicublog.sunnybrook.ca) and connects people via Facebook. Parents of preemies use the various sites to share personal stories, ask questions, post baby pictures and stay in touch with one another long after they’ve left the hospital.
“I met Kate when I was feeling so lost after giving birth,” says Sabrina Iacobelli, who delivered her daughter Aaliyah (now a healthy six- month-old) at 28 weeks. “Sometimes the medical terms were intimidating and Kate helped me understand them. She was so comforting.” Iacobelli also appreciates the ongoing network- ing Robson facilitates with other parents. “She really brings us together and gets the conversations started without being invasive.”
Robson likes to share pictures of her own children — now six and four — to give parents a sense of what the road ahead can look like. “They love seeing the before and after pictures — Maggie at 500 grams then and now in her tae kwon do outfit,” she laughs.
Last November, Robson helped organize the first of what she hopes will become regular tri-hospital meetings, where parents of preemies from three major Toronto hospitals met to share resources and experiences. She says the group is keen on connecting with school boards in the future to help them understand how to address the unique learning needs of children born prematurely. All the wonderful connections Robson has made with parents make it worth the sometimes sad moments. “I get invited to celebrations like baptisms, and I love it when parents who are graduates of the NICU come in and show off their big babies.”
“Kate is so passionate about what she does,” adds Iacobelli. “She’s a great complement to the staff — every NICU should have a Kate.” In fact, several other hospitals across the country are following Sunnybrook’s lead by develop- ing similar programs. Robson says that at this point in her life, she can’t imagine another career. “You hear about those people who just love their jobs and now I finally get it,” she says.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2012 issue with the headline “Support System” (p.64). Looking to connect with other parents of preemies? Visit our Premature Labour community board.