Teaching Profession Opinion

Forever Educated by ‘Nurse Rita’ in a Hospital Nursery

By Marilyn Rhames — December 04, 2013 5 min read
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“You have a blue baby,” Nurse Rita said calmly to first-time parents in the hospital nursery. “YOU HAVE A BLUE BABY!”

Rita grabbed the newborn, barely 18 hours old, and began patting her fervently on her back.

Blue went to purple.

Rita commanded the father to hand her the blue suction bulb. As he went fumbling over to the wooden bassinet, Rita called out for help and when the nurses weren’t coming fast enough, she raised her voice louder and with more urgency. She took the suction bulb, squeezed it, and swiped the baby’s mouth from one side to the other, just as she had shown us.

About 12 sets of proud parents had gathered in the nursery to attend the class on newborn care. Rita, the class instructor, had brought forth her lessons with a gregarious, even off-putting, approach.

For example, early in the class, Rita had taken one look at my baby’s head, which had a circumference of 36.5 cm, and quipped, “Wow. I know your butt hurts.”

“No, I had a caesarean,” I grumbled, slightly embarrassed.

Then she picked up my son and said she needed to use him as a model of how to use the suction bulb. She squeezed the bulb and let it go while swiping his mouth. He gagged once, then again. I sat up in my seat and asked her to stop.

“He’s fine,” she explained. “I need to show you all how to use this so you know exactly what to do in an emergency.”

I was seething. How dare she make my day-old baby gag! That was taking it too far.

But just a few minutes later, while we practiced sponge bathing our babies, I watched the pale white skin of the little baby girl next me turn into a deep ocean blue, then a purple grape. Her parents were washing the girl’s tiny feet and had not noticed her ripening face.


The baby’s mother froze and her father wore a nervous grin as he gently rubbed his wife’s back. The parents in the room forgot about their own babies as we watched Rita desperately try to put air into the baby’s lungs.

But there seemed to be no oxygen in the room. The seconds that passed were far too slow. The mother of the baby stumbled back into a chair. My vision grew blurry with tears. Then the baby let out a piercing cry. Crying is good, I told myself. You have to breath to cry.

Rita commanded a nurse to push the alert button. She ordered another to call the NICU doctors. Then Rita announced that the class was over. But she didn’t just kick us out. Since we were all in the middle of giving our babies sponge baths, she ordered the nursing staff to take blankets out the warming oven and help us swaddle our little ones before we took them out into the drafty hallways.

I was so shaken that I couldn’t get my hands to wrap my son up properly. Sam, the nursing student who had witnessed my c-section the day before, provided a friendly, familiar face and made sure my little guy was wrapped up tight.

I returned to my room and tried to process what had happened. How Rita was able to stay in complete control in that chaotic situation. How I had initially judged her as an arrogant, know-it-all nurse, but then I was so grateful that such a confident, competent woman was at the helm during the crisis. How she had reminded us that we needed to be equipped with knowledge because our homes don’t come with a “call nurse” buttons in every room.

I began to realize why it was so important to Rita that she explicitly modeled for parents how to use that suction bulb on a baby. I became strangely grateful that my son was selected to be suctioned, for I will never forget how to clear his throat in the event of a choking emergency.

I described the incident to my night nurse, who hadn’t been on duty when it happened. I asked her how long had Rita been in charge of the nursery. She looked uneasy and said, “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, and I don’t mean this in a negative way, but Rita is just a Patient Care Tech.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“A PCT is just a slight step up from a CNA (certified nurse’s assistant),” the nurse said.

I knew what a CNA was because my mother spent many back-breaking years in that role at a nursing home. They do the dirty work like changing bedpans and turning patients from one side to the other. They are entry level, low-wage medical paraprofessionals who are usually underappreciated.

I couldn’t believe it. Rita exercised so much authority in the nursery. She taught us how to properly hold, burp, bathe, soothe, and put to bed our babies. She dispelled parenting myths and identified ways to prevent SIDS. She saved a baby’s life right before my eyes! How could this woman not be a registered nurse?

The next day, I saw Rita working in the nursery. She was walking slow, like she was in pain, hunched over with a cane. She was on her way to pick up a baby, but she looked much older and tired--a stark contrast from the person she had been the day before.

Why am I sharing this story in my education blog? Because I received an education right there in the 11th floor nursery of Northwestern Memorial’s Prentice Women’s Hospital.

On Nov. 20, 2013 I gave birth to a healthy 7 lbs. 10 oz. baby boy. On Nov. 21, 2013 I watched a baby girl who shared my son’s birthday nearly die. When no one noticed the baby turning blue, but Rita did. And Rita saved her life.

I thought about the teacher assistants across America who work tirelessly with students, teaching them, encouraging them, saving their lives. I thought about Ms. Arce, Mr. Lopez, Ms. Virginia, and Ms. Lily at my own school. They receive much less pay and prestige, but they pour all their time and talents into ensuring student success. And students and parents LOVE them.

The dollar amount stamped on our paychecks does not dictate the extent of our influence on others. No matter what our titles are at our schools, we owe it to our students--and ourselves--to walk in authority, knowing that we have what it takes to make a tremendous difference in child’s life.

And though we may walk with a cane when the halls are bare, we appear as giants in the eyes of children and parents in the time of need. That’s what Rita did. Now a sick baby lives to see another day because Rita exceeded the expectations of her job description.

Yes, that’s what Rita did. That’s what we all must do.

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.