UConn Health lactation consultant Marisa Merlo is the first recipient of the Acelleron Community Care Award.
This award honors the person in the community who goes above and beyond to help. Merlo is recognized for helping a family overcome tragedy after losing their baby at 31 weeks of pregnancy.
Merlo was named the inaugural honoree at the Hope After Loss Compassionate Care Awards on June 8, but neither she nor Sarah Reitsma, who nominated her, were able to attend.
Merlo got a surprise Tuesday when Reitsma and Jan Ferraro, director of education in Acelleron’s Maternal and Child Division, visited UConn John Dempsey Hospital to celebrate the honor and present her with the Community Care Award surrounded by her peers. her (who were in secret).
“We are very honored to present Marisa Merlo with the extremely special Acelleron Community Care Award,” says Ferraro. “Marisa was the help this family needed. As a lactation consultant, Marisa helped her donate breast milk. Marisa was the helper to guide her, walk by her side and help her through something very scary to do something incredibly generous in creating and maintaining a milk supply.”
Reitsma, of Farmington, shared that when she was pregnant with her third child, Grace, Grace was found to have trisomy 18, or Edward Syndrome, a life-threatening chromosomal abnormality that affects about 1 in every 2,000 U.S. pregnancies. She came to UConn Health to deliver last November with the knowledge that Grace would be stillborn. Her interaction with Merlo that day would be much different than during her previous visits as a breast milk donor.
“I had already made the decision that I wanted to donate again,” says Reitsma. “At such a difficult time, not only in May’s shoes as a grieving parent, but in her shoes as a provider – How do you support someone when their baby has died? And she was just warm and loving and kind and supportive.
“And at a time when I really felt like my body had failed to keep my daughter alive, Marisa is there telling me that I’m a superstar because I can give this gift of breast milk to babies, and she’s there cheering me on and making me feel like I couldn’t be less of a failure. To have that kind of support was just incredible.”
In her heartfelt nomination letter, Reitsma wrote: “Marisa is an angel on earth. What was a terrible situation was made infinitely better because of her care. She will truly be the brightest light for all the patients she supports and cares for. She cared in such a deeply personal and empathetic way. She hugged me. I can’t tell you what that meant.”
Merlo found out in June that she had been named the award winner, but was unaware that nurse manager Lina Godfrey had arranged for Reitsma and Ferraro to come to the labor and delivery unit to present it to her. When Merlo arrived and saw them, she was overcome with emotion.
“We enter the nursing profession with the goal of helping people to the best of our abilities,” Merlo says. “To be recognized for doing what I am passionate about is a humbling honor that I will cherish forever. There are some patients who leave a lasting impression on your heart. Sara is that patient for me. Caring for Sarah was heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. Supporting her through her difficult journey was a privilege and an honor. I consider myself lucky to have crossed her path. She is truly inspiring.”
Breast milk is incredibly good for babies and can be a lifesaver for premature babies in the NICU as their intestines are too immature to process formula. In fact, NICU babies depend on donated breast milk to survive and get them through until their mother’s milk comes in.
Learn more about UConn Health’s milk warehouseConnecticut’s first and only hospital-based milk depot for breast milk donations.