We don’t often meet someone who is currently working at the job he or she dreamed of having as a child. Jennifer Papa, a neonatal-intensive-care nurse at the Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital, is one of those rare people.
“I used to play neonatal nurse in our basement, in our playroom,” she says, laughing. “I used to set up my dolls and attach them to Lite-Brite with strings. I had strings attached to shoe boxes—those were monitors or IVs.”
What is perhaps even rarer is that Jennifer not only loves her dream job—”I love, love, love, love my job,” she says—but is good at it. Last month, she received a DAISY Award, which is given to nurses to recognize extraordinary clinical skill and caring provided to patients.
Jennifer was nominated by a colleague for the award, which was created by a family that lost an adult son to an immune disorder (the name stands for diseases attacking the immune system).
“They were just astonished with the extent of work that nurses do for their patients,” Jennifer says. “They saw again and again the full magnitude of what nurses provide for families.”
Jennifer now has 30 years of experience in her dream job, having spent the last 15 at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Yale. It’s a job that most people would find daunting.
“Neonatal nursing is the care of a baby in the first 28 days of their life,” Jennifer says. “The babies that I take care of are critically ill, so they could have cardiac defects; they could have severe infections; they could have congenital anomalies; they could be micro-premies, born at 23, 24, 25 weeks of gestation. So they are extremely fragile, as are their families.
“It is very intimate work,” says Jennifer. “My favorite part is the intimacy of what I do. I get to be a part of a family as it’s actually forming, and my favorite part is to try to make that baby who can barely be touched, because they’re so ill, to try to make that baby belong to a mom and dad.”
Jennifer says that nothing in life prepares parents for having a critically ill newborn.
“People are just blindsided,” she says, “and that’s why we have to take such good care of them.”
Sometimes, Jennifer says, parents of sick babies can withdraw emotionally.
“They’re trying to be protective,” she says, “especially if they’ve had previous losses. And some of our families have lost babies before. So our job is really to try to stand solid with them, and let them know how much their baby needs their presence, whether it’s physical or emotional.”
As part of that process, Jennifer will be working with the art department at Daniel Hand High School to create small ceramic hearts that nurses can place near the patients.
“If the family has to step away when their baby is gravely ill,” she says, “we remind them these hearts are on the bedside, to sort of be their presence when they’re not right there.”
Much of Jennifer’s work involves what happens when the unit can’t save a patient. She is helping to create a palliative care system, which, she says, “is like a hospice within our unit.”
She is also the coordinator of the bereavement team.
“I now have 25 people that work on the team, which is multidisciplinary,” she says, “so I’ve got doctors who are part of the team, I have Arabic and Spanish interpreters, and I’ve got chaplains and social workers and our nurses and our advanced practitioners, all helping to try to come up with ways that we can love and support these families as their babies are dying, and as they go on after the loss of their child.
“For a family that has to say goodbye to their baby,” she says, “you have to try to create enough of a memory base that they’ve got something with them to sustain them for the rest of their lives.
“We do things to try to help the family create a legacy,” she says. The hospital might provide a recording of the baby’s heartbeat, arrange for photography, or copy the baby’s fingerprints on little stones.
The staff has its own way of handling these losses.
“Just last night,” Jennifer says, “we had what we call a soulful tea, which we resurrected from our past. We invite all of the nurses and doctors and the cleaning staff and the secretarial staff, everybody that is within our unit, and we dim the lights and we play gentle music, and it’s just a way for our staff to come and unwind.
“We’ve had a couple of losses over the last 25 days,” she says.
“In addition to that,” she says, “we try to check in with them, especially the first week or so after they’ve been part of taking care of a baby who’s passed, to see how their hearts are doing, how their minds are doing, and really affirming the tremendous amount of themselves that they gave during the time that they helped the families send their baby off.
“In my unit,” Jennifer says, “you are never alone. You are consistently assisted and loved through the shift by your peers.
“You know, when you go into our unit,” she says, “every single person has a different thing. Some people might be amazing at starting IVs and getting central lines into these itty-bitty people.
“And then other people might be really good at whatever cardiac disease the baby has. And other people have an incredible awareness or sensitivity to what the parents’ needs are. So everybody’s got a niche.
“I received the DAISY Award,” she says, “but I work with 180 Daisies.”
Jennifer’s roots in nursing go a way back. Her mother was a nurse in Groton, where Jennifer was born and where her father, a Navy officer, was stationed. Jennifer grew up mostly in Ridgefield.
She majored in nursing at Villanova University, in Pennsylvania, and went straight into neonatal nursing at Norwalk Hospital after graduation.
She met her husband, Kenneth Papa, whom she calls “the love of my life,” on a blind date. They moved to Madison 15 years ago, shortly after getting married.
Jennifer had three children from a previous marriage, but she says Ken took to family life quickly.
“Right off the bat,” she says, “he had three kids. We came home from our honeymoon and went to work, and he had to run the show. He did a great job.
“He is incredibly supportive of my career,” she says. “I couldn’t really do what I do emotionally without the support that he’s able to provide.”
Ken, who is a lawyer in Madison, and Jennifer now have a daughter together, Olivia, who goes to Polson Middle School.
In her free time, Jennifer says, “I love to read. I do a lot of photography, for myself. I love doing pictures and playing with pictures and journaling. And sewing and quilting and needlepoint, that kind of thing.”
With her 30 years of experience, part of Jennifer’s job is training, or “precepting,” beginning nurses.
“I get a new nurse who’s had a full college education,” she says, “and I mold her to be a critically thinking critical-care nurse. I help her to learn to multi-task, to anticipate, because that’s the big thing—you’re trying to anticipate anything that can go wrong at any second with your baby.
“I want to make them on fire with it, as excited as I am,” Jennifer says. “I feel so lucky to be paid for what I do.”