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Nurse's big heart for babies lands her national award

Helen Adams | MUSC News Center | September 26, 2014

NICU Heroes Award
Photos by Sarah Pack

MUSC nurse practitioner Stephanie Horecky Hall wipes away a tear as MaryLaura Smithwick, MUSC clinical director for neonatal ICU, reads the letter Mary Ann Lilly wrote as to why she nominated Stephanie for the NICU Heroes Award. 

Kashmir Jones was born two months ago, but it’s still two months until his due date.
So instead of going home with his family to Hardeeville, he’s in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at the Medical University of South Carolina. His mother, Marcia Heyward, makes the two-hour drive to see him as often as she can get away from work. Kashmir lies swaddled in a blanket, his still-developing eyes covered, while machines monitor his progress.
On a recent September afternoon, Heyward stood by her sleeping son’s side while nurse practitioner Stephanie Horecky Hall checked to make sure Kashmir’s lungs were clear. Like many premature babies, he has respiratory problems because his lungs aren’t developed enough for him to breathe without assistance. Kashmir’s breathing sounded good on this day.
Kashmir had something else going for him too, although he didn’t know it. The nurse practitioner who was giving him a quick checkup is known not only for her expertise in treating premature babies like Kashmir, but also for her compassion and dedication to her patients and their families. Those qualities are being recognized at the national level. On Sept. 25 the national non-profit group Hand to Hold and Mead Johnson Nutrition presented Hall with a NICU Heroes award, one of only two presented nationwide.
The best way to illustrate why she received that honor is to describe what happened 10 years ago, when a tiny girl came under Hall’s care. Like Kashmir, Kristianne Lilly was born at 26 weeks. She weighed 1 pound, 7 ounces, and Hall was her primary nurse. Kristianne’s mother, Mary Ann Lilly, remembers that time in her life and the role the nurse played in it.
“It was so hard, and Stephanie made it better by taking time to explain complicated medical terms, encouraging our family to take care of ourselves, letting me stay by Kristi’s side, and coordinating Kristi’s care with the neonatologist and others,” Lilly said.
NICU Preemies 
MUSC nurse practitioner, Stephanie Horecky Hall, checks on one of her patients in the NICU, Kashmir Jones, who was born two months ago at 26 weeks. 
Premature babies face many threats to their health, and Kristi’s family had to deal with the devastating fact that she developed fungal meningitis.
Hall was at the airport ready to board a flight with her husband when she learned that Kristi had taken a turn for the worse. She headed straight for MUSC. When the 1-month-old girl died, she took care of Kristi’s 11-year-old sister while the girls’ parents grieved.
“She made the most horrible night a little bit better,” said Lilly.
Unlike many parents who have lost a baby, Lilly stayed in touch with her daughter’s nurse. She and her daughter Rachel visited Hall in the hospital, exchanged cards with her and shared stories as their friendship grew over the next 10 years.
During that time, Hall earned an advanced degree at MUSC and became a nurse practitioner, which qualified her to go beyond traditional nursing duties. She became part of a physician consulting team managing the cases of critically ill babies at MUSC, with the authority to diagnose, prescribe medication, and authorize treatments and tests.
But she wasn’t the only one adding to her education. Kristianne’s mother was so moved by the care that Hall and the rest of the MUSC team had provided for her daughter that she decided to go back to school and become a nurse herself. She now works in a hospital emergency room in Myrtle Beach.
This year, Lilly did something else that surprised her friend. Ten years after Kristi’s death, she nominated Hall for the NICU Heroes Award. The winners receive not only recognition and trophies but also the chance to have $2,500 donated to the charity of their choice.
In her nomination letter, Lilly wrote: “I know meeting her was a divine connection, and now, almost 10 years later since Kristi went to heaven, she is still a tremendous support. If anyone deserves an award, it’s Stephanie! I could write an entire book about all she did, but hopefully this glimpse will help you see how truly amazing she is!”
At the award ceremony, Hall thanked Lilly and called it an honor to be recognized for her work in neonatal intensive care at MUSC. It reminded her of the impact that working with the tiniest patients can have on families’ lives.
“It motivates you to keep doing everything you can for families when you see what a difference it makes,” Hall said.
Hall asked that her charitable donation be given to the Children’s Cancer Research Fund in honor of Owen Plasman and in memory of Kennedy Branham, two children who battled cancer.
Hall’s current neonatal patients, including Kashmir Jones, may never know about her award. Their families are more concerned about the basics of their world: Is my child breathing okay? Is he or she growing? When can we take our child home?
Kashmir’s mother worries about all of those issues every day, watching as he moves his tiny legs under a striped hospital blanket or rests quietly. She relies on Hall and the rest of the MUSC neonatal intensive care team to know the answers.
“If he’s improving, not improving, she lets me know and explains things to me,” Heyward said. Hall, who was nearby, teared up at the comment, and the women hugged before going back to watching Kashmir.
“She really does take care of him. She loves him.”




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