Friend of the family Empathy: When parents bring their sick children to Johns Hopkins Children's Center, nurse Polly Hesterberg is there to lend a hand, a shoulder and a heart. She's been making the rounds for more than three decades.

May 10, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Polly Hesterberg begins each day in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit looking for adults in distress. With a mother's instinct for caring - and a nurse's attention to detail - she will check each room and bed for the tell-tale signs.

A tearful mother has left her infant's bedside when some doctors approached. Did they unfairly push her out?

The mom down the hall speaks only Turkish. Better call in a translator to make sure she understands what's happening to her son.

The mother one door down was upset that her daughter was awakened so often during the night for tests. Could that be handled better?

While 800 doctors and nurses at Johns Hopkins Children's Center spend their days watching out for sick children, one woman is focused exclusively on their families. It has been this way for more than a generation.

Hesterberg is sometimes called the "Mother of Children's Center." She is too modest - her daughter calls her "excruciatingly modest" - to accept such a title.

But this unflappable 69-year-old grandmother is a medical pioneer as surely as any doctor or researcher at Johns Hopkins. When she graduated from nursing school in 1952, the mother of a hospitalized child was treated no better than any visitor - she could see her son or daughter no more than for a few hours twice a week.

Today, mothers, fathers and other family members are regarded as an important part of the healing process with 24-hour access to a sick child. And pediatric hospitals routinely have someone assigned to look out for the family's interests.

Polly Hesterberg helped make that happen. She has taught hundreds of fledgling doctors and nurses about the needs of parents.

"When situations get difficult, the most difficult of the difficult, Polly will come in and calmly and unfailingly get families through these disasters," said Jim Fackler, a pediatric critical care physician. "She's the ultimate psychiatrist, social worker and grandmother wrapped into one."

Her title is "family care coordinator," and she has held the job for most of her 35 years at the center. It is a one-woman office, and her impact has been felt by tens of thousands of people who have come to Hopkins for help.

Sometimes, her role is to hold a parent's hand when they learn their child is dying. Often, the job involves making a visiting family's life more physically comfortable - finding them lodging or maybe just a parking place or a place to eat near the maze-like hospital complex in East Baltimore.

"So many times before I was a mother I thought I understood what mothers go through," she says. "I think it was not until I became a mother that I looked back and thought, ohmygosh, I really didn't understand."

It's a far cry from Hesterberg's early career when, as a registered nurse in the 1950s, she wore a white cap and uniform and always stood in a doctor's presence. Photographs she keeps from that era inevitably show hospitalized children looking sad and lonely - not surprising since they so rarely saw their families.

But as families began to have greater access to sick kids beginning in the early 1960s, conflicts arose. What role should parents and siblings play? What effect does the parent's stay in the hospital have on healthy children left at home? How can relatives be advocates for a child without interfering with medical treatment?

"Inevitably, conflicts arise between doctors and families," said Dr. George Dover, the center's director. "Polly sorts these out. She can pick out the real issues."

The words Hesterberg's colleagues most often choose to describe her are compassionate and a good listener. She is also an educator, conducting regular classes on how hospital employees can be more responsive to the needs of families.

Families, in turn, learn to trust her judgment. When a child faces a lengthy hospital stay, what a parent often needs to hear most is permission to leave a child and go home once in a while.

"Polly has empathy," said Jerriann W. Wilson, the hospital's director of child life. "In her wisdom, she can see that maybe the 7-year-old in the hospital is doing fine, and maybe the 3- and 4-year-old at home needs [the mother] more."

After visiting intensive care, Hesterberg will often float between the infant and toddler ward, oncology and surgical recovery room where a lot of long-term patients and their families can be found.

She is usually paged when a complaint is filed by a parent or the medical staff is having difficulty with a family. Rarely do 30 minutes go by when someone doesn't take her aside with a "Polly, when you have a minute, we need to talk..."

"Parents sometimes worry that if they complain to nurses or doctors, their children will suffer and they won't get good care," said Nancy Cournoyer, a nurse who has worked at the hospital since 1971. "Parents don't feel threatened by Polly. The hospital could never replace her."

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