Bridget Nolan-McKinney walked across the bridge connecting the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) to the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine and got in the elevator to the parking garage. Inside, a woman surrounded by congratulatory flowers and balloons was holding her brand new baby — but Nolan-McKinney could not share in their joy.
“I looked at her and I just thought ‘it’s so unfair.’ I just had a baby, too, but here I was, going home empty-handed,” said Nolan-McKinney, director of Regulatory Affairs at Penn Fertility Care. “Bringing your baby home for the first time is such a special moment. I had so been looking forward to that.”
This marked the second time in her life that Bridget had been separated from a newborn. However, as difficult as those experiences were, they — and two pairs of comfy pajamas gifted by her mother — inspired her to launch an initiative to provide some comfort to mothers who have to unexpectedly leave their newborns in the ICN.
Just ten months prior, Bridget had delivered her first daughter, Elizabeth. After a grueling pregnancy plagued with hyperemesis – the nausea-inducing complication that made headlines after Duchess Kate Middleton and comedian Amy Schumer went public with their struggles– and preeclampsia, which causes dangerously high blood pressure in expectant moms, Elizabeth was born at 36 weeks. Slightly premature, Elizabeth was mainly healthy, but some abnormal test results required her to spend a night in HUP’s nursery. Though Elizabeth was discharged the next day, by that time, Bridget had contracted a double kidney infection.
“I’d been in pain throughout the night, but as a first time mom, I just thought, ‘this must be what it feels like after you have a baby,’” she said. “I called Penn Ob/Gyn Associates (POGA), and they said I should come in. We drove straight to the doctor’s office where they told me I needed to be admitted. This was my moment to take Elizabeth home for the first time, but instead, I’m sending my husband home with her alone.”
Naturally, when Bridget learned she was pregnant with her second daughter, she was excited to have the “homecoming” experience she’d missed with Elizabeth. Her pregnancy was once again a tough one – more hyperemesis, and at just 33 weeks, the all-too-familiar symptoms of preeclampsia were baring down hard. Another call to POGA changed her mind about waiting; her doctors told her she was likely in pre-term labor and would need to be admitted. Baby Nora was born later that night, but at just 33 weeks, she still had some developing to do and was taken to the ICN. For the second time, Bridget was separated from her baby.
“When I got on the elevator in PCAM and saw the other mom leaving with their baby and people congratulating her … I just wanted to tell everyone that I’d just had a baby, too. It’s not a ‘woe is me’ moment, but you go home and it’s like, ‘what am I supposed to do now?’”
During Nora’s 15-day ICN stay, Bridget was introduced to The Superhero Project – an initiative that provides funds to ICNs for the installation of Angel Eye Cameras that allow new parents to watch over their babies until they can go home. The project’s founder reached out to Bridget on social media to see if her family needed anything while they waited for Nora’s discharge, and while she had all the support she needed, Bridget did see an opportunity.
After each pregnancy, Bridget’s mom – “a cuddle-buddy of a mom who’s always been very nurturing” – had given her daughter a new set of pajamas.
“My mom always said ‘You have to feel nice after you have a baby.’ She got me these nice nursing pajamas that looked like lounge wear, so if people came over, I looked presentable, but was also comfortable.”
Having gone back and forth to visit Nora in the ICN for 15 days, Bridget realized that if taken to scale, her mom’s small gesture could touch others in a big way and make a difference for a lot of new moms.
“There’s so much that’s given to new babies – blankets, hats, diapers – but nobody’s focused on Mom, and she’s going through it all, too. I just wanted to give moms like me something that they could take home, too.”
Today, those visions are a reality. What started with cold calls to maternity clothing lines in September is now PJs with a Smile, the first program of The Superhero Project’s “Mom division.” The program is supported by national maternity brands like Ingrid & Isabelle and Kindred Braverly who donate nursing pajamas and maternity socks, respectively, to new moms whose babies are unexpectedly born prematurely at HUP.
“When I met with the folks here at Penn and told them about PJs with a Smile, Dr. Driscoll [chair of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Penn Medicine] was all for it,” Bridget said. “Every pair of pajamas is given with a letter written by a former ICN mom just to say ‘if you need to talk, here’s someone who went through this and is willing to be there for you.’ It’s about connecting these new moms to resources they need.”
Though the program has only been officially up and running at HUP for a few months, it’s already seeing tremendous interest and growth.
“PJs with a Smile has been an incredibly positive experience for our patients and staff,” explained Sarah Wadsworth, MSN, CRNP, clinical practice leader of Women’s Health on Silverstein 7. “So often with patients who have babies in the ICN, the focus is on the wellbeing of the babies. We do not want the moms to feel forgotten in the mix, and they’re so grateful to have something for themselves! And the fact that there is a letter and a phone number to call for support if needed makes the initiative that much more meaningful.”
Bridget is currently working with teams at Penn Medicine’s Chester County Hospital and Holy Redeemer to expand PJs with a Smile in their ICNs.
While the program focuses specifically on moms who were taken by surprise by premature births, in talking with care providers in other units, Bridget realized there are many different versions of the experiences when a birth doesn’t go as hoped. Currently under development, two new expansion projects are targeting new moms in different stages of their journeys.
The One Step Closer campaign will gift baskets of labor socks and skin care products to soon-to-be moms on the anti-partum floor who are required to stay on bedrest while they wait for their little ones to make their entrances. The gift baskets aim to give these moms a much-needed pick-me-up midway through their stay. And, for moms who tragically lose their baby, Bridget is working with The Superhero Project to launch the Wrapped in Love campaign.
“Right now, Penn gives these new moms memory boxes, so we’re also going give moms a robe so they always feel like they’re wrapped in love. That’s for the moms of the Superheroes who get wings instead of capes.”
“Once we have a big supply and we’re really up and running, my goal is to give this to any ICN mom,” Bridget said. “Even if they’re prepared for it, they should still celebrate because they’re going home. My ultimate goal in life would be to give every mom a pair of pajamas just to say congrats, but we’re starting somewhere small and tangible and hope to grow from there.”