You heard the baby’s heartbeat. You felt her moving, kicking, pressing up against your insides. You’ve seen her—or at least a crude outline of her body—on the ultrasound. So when you step into the maternity unit, so many of your worries are assuaged because you know it’s just a matter of time until you will feel her for the first time. You’ll hold her warm little body in your arms, place your finger in her palm, and kiss her fuzzy head. And that idea alone can be enough to propel you through a painful, difficult labor that lasts long into the night.

But if that’s not enough, if your reserves are depleted and the uncertainty creeps in, maternity nurses are the voice telling you that you can do it, and you will make it through this.

Maternity nurses play this pivotal role every day, and for them, it’s still miraculous, no matter how many babies they’ve watched enter the world and draw a first breath.

If the obstetrician is the coach, the Labor and Delivery (L&D) nurses are the point guards, constantly supporting, teaching, and offering encouragement to women and their families as they go through the birth and the first days of a new baby’s life. If the woman in labor is determined to give birth without pain medication or to stick to a pre-planned birth strategy, if the hurt becomes too great, or if the fear overtakes her, the L&D nurses coax, cajole, soothe, and assure—all in the name of delivering a strong baby to a healthy mother in as much comfort as they can provide.

But birthing babies and caring for mother and child in the hospital is difficult, emotionally draining work. Real Woman got front row seats to the action by shadowing veteran L&D nurse Barbara Mizenko and Mom and Baby nurse Colleen Mazzella to see what a day in the life of Capital Health’s maternity unit is all about.


From Here to Maternity

After 34 years as a L&D nurse, 63-year-old Mizenko has seen it all. But she still says a quiet prayer on her way to work each day, driving those 15 minutes to Capital Health Medical Center in Hopewell Township, N.J., without even turning the radio on, mentally preparing herself for whatever will come and silently hoping that each and every mom and baby will be healthy and happy at the end of her 12-hour shift.

Most days end with that prayer answered—joyously—and Mizenko feels lucky to have been a part of a moment most people count as one of the most significant of their life. “The births never get old. Even after 34 years, it’s still a miracle to me that these babies are created. My joy is to be a part of a family’s life. This is one of the biggest moments, if not the biggest moment in their life, and I get to be a part of that,” she says.

Just two floors up in the postpartum unit, 39-year-old Colleen Mazzella, a Mom and Baby nurse who has been working with Capital Health for 5 years following 5 years in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), feels the same. Drawn to maternity because she loved the idea of new beginnings, she says working in maternity is physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging.

Mazzella’s job is to offer support and guidance to new parents while they’re in the hospital. She also helps new mothers manage the post-delivery pain, and she answers as many of their questions as possible about caring for a newborn. It’s a role that’s incredibly rewarding, but also emotional at times. “This is the happiest moment in a parent’s life, and I get to be a part of it,” she says.

Mazzella has four kids of her own—ages 14, 13, 11, and 9—so when moms and babies are happy or hurting, she finds the feelings come easily to the surface. “I cry if there’s a sick baby. I cry if there’s a sick mom. If there’s a mom that’s really doing her very best to try to breastfeed and she feels discouraged, sometimes she’ll be crying, and I’ll cry along with her.

“Having a heart, having emotion shows them that I really care.”

While being around new babies and their families pull at the heartstrings, a typical 12-hour maternity nurse shift can be physically demanding as well. In L&D, each nurse can be assigned up to two patients, but the ratio drops to 1:1 when the mom is ready to start pushing. Mizenko, who also serves as charge nurse sometimes and maybe making nursing assignments, preparing schedules, and overseeing admissions and discharges, says there is rarely a dull moment. “People would be surprised to know how physically challenging it is. When you’re helping someone push for up to 4 hours, you barely get a minute to go to the bathroom. Sometimes we’re doing three or four C-sections that day, so I might be assigned to circulate in the operating room or in the post-anesthesia care unit,” Mizenko says. “It’s different every day, and that’s what I really love about it. I’ve also learned to eat breakfast before I leave the house because there’s no guarantee I’ll get another chance to eat for the rest of the day.”

While there’s plenty of action on any given day, Capital Health’s maternity program is a “well-oiled machine,” Mizenko says. The doctors, nurses, and other staff members in the unit work as a team, ensuring that all moms and babies are having their needs met. “We have a group of nurses here who are there for you at any given moment. If you need help, it’s there at your fingertips,” Mizenko says. “We have central monitoring, so we can see what’s happening on all the patients’ fetal monitors. A nurse will look up and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on in Room 60?’ and in an instant, there’s three of us ready to walk in to see what’s going on. We work together—that’s the only way it works.”

In addition to being designated a “baby-friendly hospital,” which means the staff encourages and educates on the importance of breastfeeding, Capital Health Hopewell’s maternity unit is unique in its comprehensiveness, which includes both Level 2 and Level 3 NICU and a maternal-fetal medicine department that sees all high-risk patients. “That means we can bring a woman down, deliver her, let the NICU know if we have any issues with any of our babies, and all of our nurses are certified in electronic fetal monitoring and neonatal resuscitation, so we are fully prepared to start a resuscitation on a baby until the NICU doctors and nurses get here,” Mizenko explains.


Maternal Instincts

While it stands apart for its comprehensive services and is the only Mercer County hospital that offers maternity services, Capital Health is like most hospitals in that moms-to-be come into the maternity unit to deliver their babies with all different levels of knowledge about the birth process, Mizenko says. Some have very little awareness of how the baby is going to come out, while others have memorized every labor and delivery book they could get their hands on.

For the women who come in with the Xs and Os of their birth plan mapped out, Mizenko does her best to help them accept that there are some aspects of labor and delivery that are unpredictable. “Sometimes women come in with the intention of doing everything all natural, and if that’s their wish, I try my very best to help them with that. I offer them as many means of non-pharmacologic support as possible,” she explains. “But if the pain gets really bad, and they change their mind, I try to help them feel OK about that—I tell them, ‘You’ve never had a baby before, you didn’t know what this pain was going to be like, so don’t beat yourself up if you decide to get pain medicine or an epidural.’

“The goal at the end of all this is a healthy mom and baby, and that’s what we aim for,” Mizenko says.

More seasoned moms have a better idea what to expect, although every birth is different, she says. Even when first-time moms are well versed about the birth process, they have never experienced a contraction; the way it feels to experience labor is an unknown until it happens. “You can’t explain to someone what a contraction is going to feel like. Pain is different for everybody,” Mizenko says. “We have moms who come in here, and I’m in awe of their stamina and how they handle each contraction, just breathing and getting through it. We have them rate their pain on a 0 to 10 scale, and one person’s 10 is another person’s 1.”

Along the same lines, some women want to have as few people as possible in the delivery room, while others prefer more of an audience. “One time, before we began limiting the number of visitors allowed, I walked into a delivery room, and there were probably 12 people. I said, ‘Who are all these folks?’ The patient didn’t even know everyone,” Mizenko says. “She said, ‘I think that’s my sister’s boyfriend.’ I asked if it was OK, and she said, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t care.’ I found that surprising.”

For moms who have to have an emergency C-section, Mizenko says it can be a psychological jolt, so she tries to reassure them. “Sometimes they feel like a failure because they couldn’t deliver their baby the ‘right’ way,” she says. “I always try to explain to them that there’s not a right or wrong way to deliver a baby. If you have to have a cesarean for any reason, we help you to understand that this was the way that was necessary to bring your baby into the world, and it was the right way for the two of you.” Mazzella, who herself had four C-sections for the births of her four children, says she has so much sympathy for women who try their best to deliver vaginally, only to wind up with a C-section in the end.

“I try to give them as much comfort as I can and help them with little tricks I remember from my own,” she says. “Honestly, I think having my own family has made me a better nurse because I really know what they are going through.”

Mazzella offers support and guidance to first-time parents and old pros alike. Even parents who prepare in advance may need a lot of guidance once the baby is born. “Depending on what life experience she’s had, a first-time mom could know absolutely nothing. So you have to just start from scratch and give her the information so she’s not overwhelmed,” she says. “A seasoned mom can feel overwhelmed also, depending on what the situation is, but she has more background, so it’s about reassuring her. But every birth is different, and every baby is different.

“If I could give any advice to a first-time mom, I’d tell her that being a parent is the best job and the hardest job you’re ever going to have, but it’s also the most rewarding job,” Mazzella says. “Take every bit of advice you can from people around you, and then do what works best for you.”

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