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The way a dying baby girl was cared for in 1980 helped shape her approach to nursing

JoAnne Foley (middle) as a young nurse.
JoAnne Foley
JoAnne Foley (middle) as a young nurse.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team. It features stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

In 1980, JoAnne Foley was a new nurse, working the night shift in an Oregon maternity ward. One night, a baby girl was born with a severe congenital disorder that affected her brain and skull. She was expected to die soon.

As Foley had seen in similar cases, babies in this condition — where nothing could be done — were often placed in a bassinet and received minimal attention until they died. But Foley says the night shift supervisor, a woman named Nancy Allspach, had a different approach.

"She would go into the nursery multiple times through the shift and hold that baby," Foley recalled. "She put her face right down next to the baby, and she talked to her. And she even fed her a bottle and rocked her in the big rocking chair. And she treated that baby as though she were her own."

Foley vividly remembers not just how the baby was treated, but how the mother was treated, too. She says most of the nurses didn't know what to say to her, at a time when she needed comfort.

Foley doesn't know what happened to that mom. But if she could speak to her now, she would tell her about Allspach.

"I always wished that ... the mom would know that Nancy did not let that baby leave this world without knowing the basic need of human touch and genuine love."

And she would want to tell the mother she was sorry.

"'I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry for what you went through. Not only because of what you went through, but because of where we were in the medical world then, and what we didn't know that we know now."

JoAnne Foley.
/ Joanne Foley
Joanne Foley
JoAnne Foley.

Over her nearly 50-year career as a registered nurse, Foley has cared for many babies and children who died. And looking back, she says she always tried to treat both the children and their parents with compassion – the way she learned from Nancy Allspach.

"I never forgot the importance of touching and being close to the baby or the child, and also close to the parents," she said. "Because in that moment what they need is compassion. And Nancy taught me that."

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Kwerel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]