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How one woman changed a nurse's approach to caring for dying children and babies

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Time now for "My Unsung Hero," our series from the team at Hidden Brain. "My Unsung Hero" tells the stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else. Today's story comes from JoAnne Foley, and please note that this story deals with the death of a child. In 1980, Foley was a new nurse at an Oregon hospital. She was working the night shift in the maternity ward when a baby girl was born with a severe congenital disorder. She was expected to die soon. As Foley had seen in similar cases, a baby in this condition, where nothing could be done, was 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.

JOANNE FOLEY: She would go into the nursery multiple times through the shift and hold that baby, and she held her tight. And 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. And I was so impressed with the fact that Nancy did that. The rest of us kind of didn't know what to do. And I always wished that I could tell that mom or 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 what I would want to say is, 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.

And I'm so grateful to Nancy Allspach for teaching me that it's - goes beyond what's in the medical books and what's in the doctor's orders. There were other instances in my career when I dealt with babies who died or children who died, and I never forgot the importance of touching and being close to the baby or the child, and also close to the parents. It doesn't matter - anything beyond that moment. And in that moment, what they need is compassion, and Nancy taught me that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUMMERS: JoAnne Foley of Florence, Mont. She says that after she left the hospital, she wrote to Allspach to let her know how much her compassion affected her. JoAnne and Nancy continued to stay in touch until Allspach died. You can find more stories like this on the "My Unsung Hero" podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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