Connecting with a cause close to her heart
For Patricia Cervone, it’s always been about the babies.
As soon as the last of her four children started elementary school, Cervone decided to enroll in a nursing program. After graduating from the University of Bridgeport, she got a job in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Bridgeport Hospital. That was in 1980. She would spend the next 31 years taking care of babies – and their parents.
“This is so close to my heart. It makes me feel good to know that the emotional well-being of parents
and families is being taken care of in all ways that I tried to help them.”
Her interactions with the parents especially resonated with Cervone. Many were overwhelmed
by the reality of an infant who was hospitalized for possibly months at a time, which forced them to
juggle job absences and financial concerns, often while parenting additional children at home.
“It’s often worse on the family than it is on the baby who is in the NICU,” she said.
Cervone tried to help the parents as best as she could. She did research to find available resources
when parents asked what to expect when their baby came home. She also attempted to coordinate a
support group to give parents the opportunity to gather together.
“I did the best I could, but it wasn’t my field. I’m not a social worker. I’m a nurse,” she said. “I always felt like I was falling short and that I could have done more, but I didn’t know how. I was out of my element.”
This year, she got her chance. When she received a fundraising appeal from the Bridgeport Hospital
Foundation, a specific section caught her eye. Bridgeport Hospital was seeking funds to start a
structured NICU Mental Health Program. Cervone knew immediately that this was a cause she and her
husband, John, would support with a donation.
The NICU Mental Health Program is spearheaded by Noa Fleiss, MD, a neonatologist at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital NICU and the Bridgeport Hospital NICU. Dr. Fleiss had witnessed the power of such a program at New York Presbyterian Columbia University Medical Center, where she completed her fellowship in neonatal and perinatal medicine. She was eager to bring it to the Bridgeport Hospital NICU.
“Mothers of NICU patients are at an increased risk for postpartum mood and anxiety disorders, at
a rate that is nearly double to that in the general population,” Dr. Fleiss said. “We want to improve
outcomes and provide preventative interventions early, before the stress becomes too much for
them to bear.”
Before the program was implemented in June 2021, mothers who were identified by NICU medical staff
as being “high risk” received referrals for counseling and support. However, there were concerns that
there were mothers who were silently struggling and not showing any visible signs of distress.
“We knew that we might be missing people who needed help, so we wanted to make sure the
screening is universal and systemized,” said Elisabeth Schneider, licensed mental health provider
and program coordinator.
The program is designed to identify parents who may be struggling financially and emotionally while their babies are in the NICU. Every mother receives a questionnaire when her baby has been in the NICU for 14 days and another screening again at two months.
While the survey is administered to the mothers, Schneider asks fathers who are present for the
screening to reflect upon the questions and report how their baby’s NICU stay is impacting them as
well. The survey screens for depression and anxiety, and identifies areas where a family may need
referrals to community resources that range from post-partum depression and financial concerns to
babysitting worries and transportation issues.
“We look at the whole system and plug any gaps so parents can bond with their babies and feel good about their roles,” Schneider said. “We make sure parents aren’t left to struggle alone with their trauma.”
And for Pat Cervone, that’s what it’s always been about. “This is so close to my heart,” she said. “It makes me feel good to know that the emotional wellbeing of parents and families is being taken care of.”