Working in the neonatal intensive care unit is not for every nurse. It’s a high-stress job caring for medically fragile newborns and grieving parents.
But for Kathleen LePain, the NICU at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center is where she was meant to be.
“A lot of people don’t know what their God-given gifts are; I know what mine are. They are to be able to help these families and these babies through the worst times of their lives,” said LePain, a NICU nurse for 38 years at the Athens hospital.
Co-worker John Brieske said LePain “has a supernatural gift of providing care, comfort, and empathy for families in their darkest hours.”
That’s why LePain was presented with an AJC Nurse Excellence Award on Friday afternoon, after being nominated last fall. More than 800 nurses were nominated, with 10 being honored.
In recommending her for the award, Brieske recalled how “beautifully and compassionately” LePain cared for a mother whose baby was not progressing.
LePain said the mother had twin girls in the NICU. Although one grew stronger and was discharged, the other had many setbacks.
The mother broke down after another bad report from doctors, prompting LePain to enter the room.
As the mother cried in the nurse’s arms, “I told her: ‘This is not what we wanted to hear, but we can pray about this. We can give it to God and let him be able to help her. You and I can’t fix this,’” LePain said.
Brieske said these tender moments when no one is watching define LePain’s character.
“These are the moments that Kathleen shares with parents that most people will never see,” he said.
Her care for this family is typical, because LePain meets families during one of their most challenging times.
“We don’t just take care of babies,” she said. “We take care of those families, too. This is not a happy time for them. They have to grieve the healthy-term baby they thought they were having.”
LePain, who grew up in Athens, has cared for young patients since working as a teen volunteer in the hospital’s pediatric unit.
Her job in the NICU has highs and lows. The most rewarding moments are handing parents their newborn to hold for the first time. The worst part is to prepare a family to say goodbye to their baby, LePain said.
During those times, LePain said, she leans on her faith for strength.
“I’m able to tell what that family needs — and I know that’s not what I do by myself,” she said. “If it weren’t for my faith, I couldn’t be there. That’s definitely where I get my strength from.”
When not at the hospital, LePain might be found in destressing by building things in the woodworking shed at her Watkinsville home. Right now, she’s working on kitchen cabinets as a gift for her husband of 35 years.
“This particular job can tear you apart if you don’t have an outlet,” she said.
To read about and watch videos of all honorees, please visit www.ajc.com/pulse/#celebratingnurses.
This is LePain’s second AJC Celebrating Nurses award, earning her first in 2021.
She was honored with a national DAISY Award for extraordinary nurses in September 2022.
As a native of Athens, LePain has worked in this same hospital for 40 years, starting as a teen volunteer on the pediatric floor during high school.
READ MORE ABOUT THE OTHER AWARD RECIPIENTS
Nurse leader Millie Sattler, Emory Healthcare
Terri Holden, Piedmont Cartersville Medical Center
Rita Ford, Northside Hospital Gwinnett
Brandie Christian, Northside Hospital Gwinnett
Lisa Treadwell, Piedmont Eastside Medical Center
Stacey Howard, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston
Kellie Mitchell, Wellstar Paulding Hospital
Mark Lee, Emory University Hospital
Janet Rollor, Wellstar Kennestone Hospital
About the Author
Credit: Henri Hollis / Henri.Hollis@ajc.com