Kathleen LePain, Piedmont Healthcare Athens

Registered nurse Kathleen LePain has been walking the same halls at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center for 50 years.

At age 10, the Athens native was a candy striper volunteer on the pediatric floor, taking care of the babies when the parents had to leave. She even worked there as a nurse’s assistant while in college.

Now, LePain cares for the hospital’s tiniest, most fragile patients as a nurse in neonatal intensive care unit, where she’s worked for the past 38 years.

“We meet families in the biggest crisis of their lives,” LePain said. “Here’s this beautiful baby they’ve expected to love on and hold within the first few minutes, and that doesn’t happen. To walk them through that and be the person who guides them is the best part of what we do.”

Kathleen LePain, RN, Piedmont Healthcare Athens. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

Credit: Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

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Credit: Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

It is also a joy to watch them go home, she said, “especially knowing where these babies started and being a part of their lives from the beginning.”

Last fall, the NICU began caring for an infant born at 24 weeks gestation, weighing 1 pound 7 ounces. LePain learned the father, a National Guard soldier, was deployed in Kuwait and saw his newborn daughter only through his wife’s cellphone videos.

“Pictures on the phone are not the same,” LePain said. Unless you see them with your eyes, “you have no idea of the size of these children.”

LePain took photos of the baby next to her mother’s hand for size comparison and asked co-workers to make footprints and handprints. She boxed them up, along with a diaper and blood pressure cuff, and shipped them to Kuwait at her own expense.

“Kathleen took it upon herself to put together a very personal care package to send overseas so that dad could grasp on a tangible level just how perfect and just how tiny his baby girl is,” nurse manager Lindsay McCloskey said in nominating LePain for an Atlanta Journal-Constitution Excellence in Nursing Award.

At first, the father was afraid to open the package, but when he did, he expressed thanks for the kindness and hung all the items up in his bunk with pride, McCloskey said.

McCloskey said LePain is involved at this level with all families under her care. Despite a long career in the NICU, she has not lost her passion for babies.

“She is amazing at the bedside, and every new nurse we hire hopes to learn from Kathleen. Her impact on our unit and our community is significant,” she said.

McCloskey herself was once a student of LePain’s. She taught her how to place central lines in tiny infants and what to say — and not to say — to grieving parents.

“Her strength is her connection with the family and seeking out any way to help them bond and navigate the atypical situation that they’re in, no matter how long they are in the unit,” the manager said.

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Kathleen LePain, RN, Piedmont Healthcare Athens. Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

Credit: Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

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Credit: Courtesy of Crew Atlanta

Meet the other award winners:

Vicky Hogue, Wellstar Paulding Hospital. Winner of the Nurse Leadership Award, sponsored by Mercer

Rochanda Crawford, Grady Health System

Beth Dziczkowski, Northside Hospital Cherokee

Clayton Fowler, Wellstar Kennestone Hospital

Danielle Giaritelli, Emory Healthcare

Jody Leonard, Southern Regional Medical Center

Tasneem Malik, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Laura Moss, Wellstar Spalding Regional Hospital

Laurie Pazda, Wellstar Kennestone Hospital

Laura Toops, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta