From: The Courier Journal

By Katya Cengel

Sister Ann Molony stops the stroller and glances down at the baby strapped inside.

“Peek-a-boo,” she coos.

The baby, a 7-month-old boy with a variety of medical issues, meets her gaze.

“Let’s go find the birds; find the birds,” Sister Ann says.

She continues pushing the stroller past the nurse’s station and around the corner. She stops in front of a wall with two framed pictures — pictures of birds. It’s the best she can do for the boy, who has not been identified to protect his privacy, and for the other babies at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Kosair Children’s Hospital. She can’t take them outside, can’t even find a window for them to look out. So she improvises, letting them touch a cold metal ice chest, glance at pictures on the wall and feel what she imagines a mother’s love must feel like.

This morning, Sister Ann learned that the boy she has helped care for since birth will be leaving soon. Sister Ann knows a lot about the little fellow: He dislikes chicken-flavored baby food, is trying to make sounds, and can turn pages of books.

But she knows little about what will happen to him when he leaves the hospital. She doesn’t ask those questions. Some of them, she says, she can figure out for herself. But when she is with the babies, she doesn’t think about that.

“I just concentrate on whichever one I’ve got and give them 100 percent of me,” she says.

It is when Sister Ann is outside the hospital that she wonders about what will become of them. It is outside that she notices how her 83-year-old body is failing: her eye that no longer sees, her back that causes her so much pain, the chronic ailments she is continually battling — all the reasons she retired to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Motherhouse Campus near Bardstown this summer.

It was her second retirement. Her first came more than two decades ago, after 25 years of teaching and quite a few more of caring for children in various roles. To occupy her time, she decided to volunteer at Kosair — seven days a week. Over the years, she has cut down her visits until her move to the Motherhouse, where sisters are cared for in their final years.

But her second retirement went as badly as her first.

It “was terrible,” she says. “I went out walking and thought all the time I was walking that I wished I was where I used to be.”

Her doctor recommended that she return to the babies one day a week. So for the past few weeks, every Wednesday she has been slipping a yellow frock over her skirt and top and cuddling the babies.

“She needs this place,” says Brenda O’Bryan, volunteer manager for Kosair Children’s Hospital. “She just wants to give. That’s what Sister Ann’s life is.”

A mother’s love

Sister Ann sits in a rocking chair holding 22-day-old Morgan.

There are babies on either side of her making a long line down the narrow room. Behind them are the tubes and machines that keep them alive, one of which always seems to be beeping. But with Morgan in her lap, Sister Ann tunes everything out, bending over the preemie.

Morgan isn’t one of the babies Sister Ann usually holds. She doesn’t need to: Morgan’s parents, Marie and Chad Ballard, are here every day. It is the babies whose parents aren’t present — because they are working, live too far away or have other children — on whom Sister Ann lavishes her affection.

But just because Morgan has attentive parents doesn’t mean her struggle is over. When her mother proclaims Morgan should be going home soon, Sister Ann corrects her:

“You never say ‘going home,’ you say ‘going to the zoo.‘”

Some don’t go home

In the nearly two decades that Sister Ann has been volunteering at Kosair, she has learned that babies don’t always get to go home when they are supposed to, and some don’t get to go home at all. So like the nurses, she has learned to say they are going to the zoo or going shopping.

When Madison was born in May 1998, she wasn’t expected to make it home.

“She really shouldn’t have lived past the first night,” says her mother, Kelley Riordan.

Madison was born with her intestines outside her body. Riordan, her mother, Bonnie Mitchell, and other relatives took turns visiting Madison in the evenings.

“But we never had to worry during the day because Sister Ann was there,” Mitchell says.

Despite the endless pricking and prodding she was subjected to, Madison was a happy baby, Mitchell says, an occurrence she credits in part to Sister Ann’s care. Sister Ann would rock her and sing to her and Madison would smile, babble and blow raspberries, Mitchell says. Riordan believes Sister Ann’s love helped Madison stay alive as long as she did — more than a year.

Riordan also credits Sister Ann with easing tensions between her and her mother. Before Madison was born, Riordan and her mother were not speaking, Riordan says. But after spending time with Sister Ann, she came to a new understanding.

“I was being selfish,” Riordan says. “I needed my mama, is what it was.”

It was a need Sister Ann recognized from her own life and tries to fill when caring for babies.

“In all the years I’ve been here, I’ve always taken the babies that had no bonding with anybody,” she says. “It’s just my mother died when I was 2, and I know what that means not to have a mother’s love.”

Sister Ann’s mother died in childbirth. The nun has spent much of her life, first as a teacher, and then working in hospitals and orphanages, trying to ensure that other children don’t feel the loss she did. But it was in the Neonatal Intensive Care Uni that she found a place where her love was desperately needed. And she did everything she could to get there, braving two muggings, public transportation and snowstorms. This is what God told her to do with her life, Mitchell says, adding, “It is an absolute calling.”

Mitchell isn’t sure why Sister Ann chose to help their family. Madison had family to look after her but since she was not expected to survive, attachment to her would be painful. But for Sister Ann, it was never about Sister Ann, said volunteer manager O’Bryan. It is about the kids.

“If they needed her love, she gave it,” O’Bryan says. “It didn’t matter if it was only going to be an hour, a day, a year; Sister Ann didn’t look at it from that standpoint.”

A special bond

Sister Ann secures the baby boy’s diaper.

“There you go; you’ve got a great big diaper,” she says.

As he flails his arms around the crib, finally grasping a package of baby wipes, Sister Ann continues her monologue:

“Look at you pick that up! You pick that up all by yourself? Wow!”

In his crib are a few toys, underneath it, books Sister Ann has brought in. Donated baby clothes and small toys are constantly delivered, which the staff happily wash and distribute.

The boy for whom Sister Ann cares is outfitted in a pair of brightly striped socks and Elmo diapers. He isn’t talking yet but his eyes focus on faces and his hands are always reaching for something. Sister Ann has been with him from the beginning, save her brief absence during retirement. But when he is gone, she will move on to another baby.

“It’s never hard to find new ones,” she says.

The unit nurses try to match her with the babies who need the most attention, nurse Robin Dunn says.

She is especially good with infants born addicted to drugs because she has the time and patience to sit with them while they battle through withdrawal, nurse Len Balaskiewicz says.

You get a baby fussing and screaming, Balaskiewicz says, “You think, ‘Oh, I wish I had Sister Ann.’ She can spend the time with them.”

It is something the 30 or so nurses caring for 80-some babies in several different units can’t always do, she says. Because Sister Ann remains with the same babies, she provides them with someone with whom they can bond, says Dr. Dan Stewart, the unit’s medical director. And when that happens, he adds, they gain weight better, interact more readily, and show improved vital signs and functions.

“They love consistency, these babies do,” Stewart says.

And consistent attention like Sister Ann’s helps “them get over critical period in their life when they’re transitioning from critical care to home care.”

Sister Ann has another way of explaining it:

“I think everybody needs some (love), so I’m doing just a little part, that’s it,” she says.

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