by Heather Nichols
My name is Heather Nichols, and I am from San Antonio and have been living in Austin since my days as a UT Longhorn undergrad. As a 2018 co-chair for Hand to Hold’s Baby Shower Luncheon, this year’s theme, Seasons of Life: Strength from the Storm, is near and dear to me. This is its truth: weathering life’s storms prepares us to give strength and help to those who need our support and experience. I’d like to share some of of my experience to illustrate how Hand to Hold meets the emotional needs of families during the challenging and frightening times and how what we do makes them stronger parents, spouses and individuals.
I’ve had several experiences that lead me to have a unique perspective on the work of Hand to Hold. I’ve worked as a child therapist with a B.S. and M.A. in Counseling Psychology and certifications in mediation and a number of parenting styles and family dynamics. I’m also a mother whose daughter was born at 27 weeks, had multiple surgeries and spent four long months in neonatal intensive care. These elements of my life and the introduction of Hand to Hold’s mission led me to become a peer mentor to so many other families in need of support.
While working with children as a professional, I took a holistic view of their individual needs by seeing them as part of an emotional unit that cannot be understood apart from their family members. This approach, known as a “family systems model,” is essential to understanding their situations and helping them to learn social-emotional skills needed to cope and thrive. At Hand to Hold, we also use a family systems model to understand individual needs. We teach coping skills based on our understanding of what parents experience when their baby is in neonatal intensive care. What I also realized is that all my counseling experience couldn’t prepare me for living through the NICU experience myself.
My daughter was born at 27 weeks, without any early warning signs. Even though we had no indication of any risks in my pregnancy, my maternal instinct kicked in when I thought she wasn’t wiggling around as much as she had the days before. After a stressful day of not knowing anything, an impromptu sonogram revealed she had an intestinal blockage. My daughter was delivered via emergency c-section, then whisked away from me seconds after birth. Her medical journey had just begun. There was no time to stop and emotionally process the trauma, to think through the change in our family situation, or to prepare for the stress of the NICU environment.
After multiple surgeries, and more than one survival event, my daughter, my husband and I finally graduated from the NICU. My daughter weighed two pounds and was the size of my hand when she was born. When we left the NICU she weighed in at a whopping six pounds! The medical staff did a phenomenal job of caring for our daughter, but life on the outside of the NICU was not the normal, new family homecoming. We were not prepared for the post-traumatic stress and emotional roller coaster.
There was no manual for the number of medical follow-ups, the constant stress of whether or not she would be alright as she grew up, the personal emotions as a mom when I felt like my body let her down, or the guilt and anger that would creep into every day discussions in our family that had nothing to do with anything other than all that stress finally reaching a breaking point. Hand to Hold was just being established at this time and the need to fill this void – connecting with the families, preparing them for the journey ahead, and letting them know all their emotions and stress are valid and they are not alone – it couldn’t come soon enough for us.
With my own experience behind me, my beautiful daughter growing up and fitting in well with her classmates at St. Andrews, I found a real outlet to share my experience with others as a Hand to Hold peer mentor. I work with families who are just starting their own journey through the storm to normalize the fear, anxiety, anger and negative interpersonal conflicts the NICU experience often evokes. I do this in a way I could not accomplish as a professional counselor because now I have experienced them all myself.
One time, I sent a mother whom I was mentoring a current picture of my daughter. She felt joy and hope because our daughters had very similar complications at birth. After that, she began reaching out to me more often, asking questions, and planning for her daughter’s future post-NICU. She also began to “respond” to the situation as a coping skill versus “reacting” and shutting down. When parents feel understood, when their emotions are validated, and when they have hope about the future, they reach a turning point in their ability to cope with their NICU experience.
To cope with the trauma, parents also need confidence that they are the best advocates for their child and to be reassured that all their feelings — ranging from guilt and depression to terror — are completely normal. With our personal experience, we peer mentors fully understand their trauma. As a professional, I know its effects and how to teach the skills they need.
Being in the NICU with your child is a sprint; it’s about being a medical advocate for your child. But dealing with the trauma, regardless of its outcome, is a marathon that Hand to Hold helps the family get through once they leave the NICU. A premature birth or medical emergency is a traumatic event. Hand to Hold understands this and creates safe spaces for families to express their emotions and aids in planning effective ways to help. After our family’s traumatic birth experience, I appreciated the need for peer-to-peer support and the safe space only another NICU parent could provide.
From peer-to-peer mentoring that’s personal to podcasts that are universal — with voices that are hopeful, vulnerable and real — Hand to Hold is on a mission. We will provide families with the best support and resources necessary for parents to begin the journey of healing. When we help hospitals create spaces for family-centered care, we make room for the season of healing to arrive. Our seasons of life continually renew and prepare us to be stronger, kinder and wiser with each year.
About Heather Nichols, M.A.
Heather holds a B.S. in communications from The University of Texas at Austin and M.A. in Counseling Psychology from St. Edward’s University. In private practice and in schools, she worked with individuals while collaborating with families on therapeutic goals. She is a certified Mediator, Family Mediator, Positive Discipline Parent Educator and Mindfulness Instructor for Youth K-12.