When she worked as a critical care nurse, Helen Keilty wished she could spend more time with her patients’ families. “I always wanted to spend as much time with the family as they needed, instead of moving on to the next person coming through the ER door,” she said.
As the child of a Naval officer and the spouse of a civil service engineer, Helen has moved around the world her entire life. Her mom worked as a nurse in London during World War II. Helen was a candy striper in high school and attended nursing school afterward. “I was always on the path to be a nurse,” she said. And because of her international travel, Helen has worked with a wide variety of patients in diverse settings throughout her 38 years of nursing.
At first Helen worked primarily in intensive care units and emergency rooms. However, once she started as a labor and delivery nurse, she never looked back. She worked in labor and delivery in military hospitals in Japan and Italy. “In Japan, young Japanese brides in labor would come into the hospital and they spoke no English whatsoever,” Helen recalled. “We would ask the husband to translate, but they didn’t speak much Japanese. Getting them through labor with the language barrier was challenging.” Helen quickly realized she needed to learn enough Japanese to communicate with her patients, even though she was working in an American military hospital. “I tried to learn some words that would help in the delivery room” she said, “and understand some Japanese culture. I learned that the Japanese approach childbirth and the post-partum period quite differently. Typically, the father is not in the delivery room and they don’t have as much support as offered in a military hospital. Also, they don’t give babies colostrum, the substance that nursing mothers produce before their natural milk begins to flow.”
By contrast, when Helen worked as a nursing instructor, she and her students sometimes assisted young mothers who were as young as 14, 15, or 16 years old. “You don’t usually see mothers that young in the military hospital,” she said. “Being a nursing instructor and mentoring nurses was a wonderful experience, but I wanted more connection with the patients and with new parents – instead of just with students.”
“I love first-time parents,” Helen explained. “All parents are great but sharing the awe and wonder of a newborn with first-time parents never gets old. As soon as a child is born and begins to bond with its parents, there is a visible, physical and visceral change in the parents. Within seconds, they’re both a little more prepared for life.”
That’s what led Helen to the Society a decade ago, but until then, she wasn’t familiar with NMCRS. Helen believes promoting the work of the Society is an important part of her job. “We do lots of “meet and greet” and “lunch and learn” information sessions, she said. “We just held one at Portsmouth Naval Hospital. Many of the nurses on the maternity floor didn’t know about the Society’s visiting nurse program. More than 350 babies are delivered there each month!”
While labor and delivery nurses don’t have unlimited time to spend with their patients, Helen does. “The best part of this job is having the time to sit and listen. Our clients become more comfortable and share their concerns. After our first or second visit, we begin to see parents empowered and confident that they can care for their child. It’s wonderful to see that personal growth.”
Helen sees an increasing number of single, active duty parents, or those who are both on active duty. She estimates that one-third of her clients are single and on active duty, which adds stress to the already challenging role of new parent. “I help them identify various support systems in the area. So many active duty fathers are only home for a month or so after their baby arrives and then they return to their deployed unit or duty station. The mother is home with a newborn and can quickly become isolated. We connect them with the community and resources.”
Parenting a newborn alone through a long deployment can be tough. According to Helen, “It’s not uncommon for a six-month deployment to be extended to nine or ten months. I talk with the moms about how to cope with that, and how to reincorporate a parent who’s been deployed back into the family. When the absent parent comes home and their baby cries because it doesn’t know them it’s discouraging – but normal. I tell them it doesn’t mean they’re doing anything wrong, or that their baby won’t bond with them. We help military moms and dads think about and work through moments like that.”
For many active duty moms who’ve been very successful in their careers, becoming a parent can be difficult. They may have to step back, evaluate their priorities, and learn how to manage daycare, illness, and other unexpected crises. Helen helps them learn to balance their professional expectations and allow themselves to be a parent.
“I remember one client, a master chief (E-9), pregnant with her first child,” Helen recalled. “I visited her and her baby in their home. The father, also a master chief, said to me, ‘Explain to me why this baby cries so much.’ I told him, ‘you can’t order a baby to stop crying, Master Chief!’ You see, at work these parents were in complete control. This first-time father didn’t feel like he was in control. I helped them understand that life with a newborn was different. Their infant had colic. I showed them how to sooth the baby and gave them other techniques to comfort their child. And I also told them, ‘Babies rule the house.’”
Thank you for your years of dedicated service to the Society, Helen!
By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso