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Meet RSM Pursue Your Passion Winner: Michelle Whittenhall

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Business Tax CIM FCI Manager | Rockford, Illinois

My “Pursue You Passion” is both personal and philanthropic in nature. Back in 2016, I gave birth to our first daughter, Violet, very early at 29 weeks. I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was actually on my way to meet my RSM team in the Chicago office for a project, but first had to make a pit stop for a routine checkup with my doctor. From there, I was immediately sent to the hospital due to high blood pressure and in the following days, it was made clear that I had developed severe pre-eclampsia.

Essentially, the baby was not thriving and I would need to have an emergency C-section. She was born weighing 2 lbs. 7oz and the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) swooped in and worked their magic on her. Little did my husband and I know that we would be visiting that NICU unit around the clock, day in and day out for 80 long days while our baby learned to thrive on her own. It was an extremely emotional time for us. I was a first time mother, nothing had gone according to plan (and as we all know, accountants LOVE their planning) and I was constantly worried about my baby’s health while suffering complications of my own. Luckily, we had wonderful support from family, friends and a great hospital, and Violet is growing up just fine and healthy. But it was a humbling time for both my husband and me - we felt helpless. We didn’t know anyone who had gone through this process and felt utterly alone. Those days in the NICU were some of the toughest, most exhausting moments of my life.

Flash forward to today’s world and the situation we are in with COVID-19. I was thinking the other day that I can’t imagine having a newborn at this time, let alone going through that NICU process now. The “normal” process of having a child in the NICU is stressful enough, but due to the need for a sterile environment, many NICUs are not allowing family in at all right now. Some parents have to use Zoom to see their little ones on a screen. Some rely on calls alone. To complicate things even further, in any NICU the nurses will encourage parents to hold their babies via “skin to skin” contact to better connect with them. This contact promotes beneficial physiological conditions in preemies like more stable thermoregulation, heart rate, respiratory rate, and oxygen saturation. More than that, it affects the mother and father as well. Being close to and touching baby releases oxytocin & helps to cement the natural bond between parent and child. No matter how stressed I was when I would arrive at the NICU, a couple of minutes of laying Violet directly on my chest and letting her sleep would instantly relax me and remind me that hope wasn’t lost. It allowed me to fully connect with the baby that I hadn’t even recognized the first time visiting her in the NICU. Disallowing parents to be in person and see and touch their infant, while necessary during COVID, will absolutely have a detrimental effect on the parents’ (especially the mother’s) mental health and stress. Parents need to know that they are not alone, that someone outside the hospital understands their mental load and cares about their situation. While parents are worrying about taking care of their babies in the NICU, they need to have someone cheering them on and reminding them that they can persevere.

My “Pursue Your Passion” project is to work with local Chicagoland/Western Suburb NICUs to help develop and deliver NICU parent care packages. These would be for any family currently in local NICUs (some hospitals only have a five-bed NICU, while others like the one my daughter was at have 50 beds). They would include both things that are medically/functionally useful (hand sanitizer, lip balm, travel size toiletries for long days, breastfeeding supplies, ice packs for toting milk to the NICU, etc.) as well as uplifting gifts (notes of encouragement, a NICU journal to document their experience, books on life in and out of the NICU, a cute bag for carrying the day’s supplies, baby books, portable sound machine, etc.). Should any funds not be utilized after all packages are distributed, I would suggest donating it to Loyola University’s NICU, which is where my daughter was cared for.

In the grand scheme of things, a care package is a small gesture, but one that I believe will positively impact local families and have an inspirational effect. It may ease a mother’s sorrow, encourage a father to stay optimistic, or just bring a smile to their faces. I know from experience, a little encouragement and love goes a long way in any hospital unit, especially in NICU.