Regional One’s nurse manager and mother of two preemies, offers valuable insight

Editor’s note: This month, instead of our regular Physician Spotlight, in honor of nurses we focus on an outstanding nurse who represents the quality of care provided by the profession.

What are the odds? Kelley Smith was working at the Regional Medical Center, Regional One Health's acute care hospital as a neonatal nurse when she became pregnant in 1997 with her first child. Well-accustomed to caring for other people’s premature babies, she still was caught by surprise by her own early delivery. Her child, Reid, was born at 29 weeks, weighing 3 pounds, 4 ounces.

What are the odds again? Three years later, Kelley and her husband, Jon, had another baby on the way. Daughter Mary Dreyer also arrived early, at 32 weeks, weighing 3 pounds, 14 ounces.

Both children are thriving today. Reid, 16, is a sophomore at Memphis University School and plays golf and basketball. Mary Dreyer, 13, is a seventh-grader at St. Agnes and plays volleyball and basketball.

Having two premature babies was not exactly something Smith wanted, but the experience made her all the more valuable in her role as a nurse in the NICU. Having gone through what her patients are going through, she said, “does develop some sense of trust. It helps them to know that I understand what they are going through.”

Today, Smith is Regional One’s nurse manager, supervising a staff of 110 other nurses providing care for, on average, more than 60 babies born prematurely. These infants come into the world early for a variety of reasons.

“While there are many things that can cause premature births, such as teen pregnancy, multiple pregnancy such as twins, being underweight or obese, heavy smoking, drug abuse, poor nutrition, fetal birth defects, emotional stress such as domestic violence and severe poverty, previous preterm birth or labor, or any uterine or bladder infections, there are also those with no known risk factors who can still deliver prematurely.”

Smith fell into the latter group when she gave birth early.

“It was definitely something I had not prepared for,” she said. “I took very good care of myself, ate the right things, exercised and had prenatal care. Once I knew that delivery was imminent, I began telling the nurses in the delivery room what all they needed to have prepared for the birth of my baby. They knew I was a neonatal nurse.”

“Of course, once (her baby) was admitted to the NICU, all I could think about was all the things that could go wrong. He was a white male born at 29 weeks. Among all of the races, they tend to do the worst. From an emotional standpoint it can be a roller-coaster.

“You have to take one day at a time. My son was discharged 3 ½ weeks after he was born. Although I was a NICU nurse, I was still very nervous about taking him home. I can’t imagine how our parents who have never cared for a premature baby must feel on the day of discharge.”

Then, three years later, along came her daughter.

“I was very worried with my second pregnancy,” Smith said. “After I passed 30 weeks, I actually thought I would make it to term. But my daughter had a different plan. She came at 32 weeks. She only had to stay in the hospital for 10 days. Fortunately, in the case of both of my children, they did very well and did not have any complications.”

Smith is a native of Columbus, Mississippi, whose father was co-founder and owner of Tom Soya Grain Co. in West Point, Mississippi. She earned her BSN in nursing from Ole Miss in 1988.

She originally set her sights on medical school.

“I began my major in premed until my mother had a stroke my freshman year in college,” she said. “It was at that time, after seeing how dedicated and compassionate the nurses were, that I decided to switch my focus to nursing.”

After stops in Birmingham and Atlanta, Smith and her husband moved to Memphis after he graduated from Emory University School of Law. She wanted to be closer to her family, including two sisters who live in Memphis.

Regional One Health, she said, “was the first place I interviewed, and I immediately knew that’s where I wanted to be.”

Working in a neonatal unit comes with highs and lows. The lows include “knowing that you put your whole heart and soul into caring for a baby, only to have them pass away. We have to remember that it’s in God’s hands.”

The highs come “when you see a family walk out the door with their baby and a huge smile on their face. It is so rewarding and the families are so appreciative of all you have done to give them that experience, especially when they thought there was no hope.”

In her effort to improve quality in the NICU and reduce risks, Smith leads initiatives such as working with the Vermont Oxford Network, an organization of NICUs around the world that share knowledge and practices.

She also is devoted to the March of Dimes and is heavily involved each year in the March for Babies.

“The March of Dimes has done so much to help prevent premature births as well as develop other means to help premature babies and families,” she said. “They were instrumental in the development of surfactant, which helps reduce lung disease in the preterm infant.

“While I love my job very much, I would very much like to see the incidence of premature births decrease. I wouldn’t mind being put out of a job if it meant that babies would be born full term without complications and could live to see their first birthday.”

“With Shelby County having the highest infant mortality rate, it is our responsibility to do what we can to improve the lives of our most vulnerable patients.”


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