Kalli Gillman

April 19, 2022
Kalli Gillman
Kalli Gillman

Nurse jumps into action to make sure a new mom could hold her baby

The mother had never met her newborn baby.

And critical care nurse Kalli Gillman had just a few minutes to make the special moment happen.

The mom, Sarah Mays, had nearly died of COVID-19.

To ensure Sarah’s survival, teams of specialists at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital had to do an emergency cesarean delivery when Sarah was only 29 weeks pregnant, then immediately connect Sarah to a life support system called ECMO which stands for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. (Read more about Sarah’s ordeal.)

Both mother and baby Kabrini survived.

But around the time Sarah got off ECMO and regained consciousness, Kalli received an urgent call.

Kabrini, who was just days old, had some health issues and needed to be transferred immediately to Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Sarah was still in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), but desperately wanted to hug Kabrini for the first time before the transfer. Normally, critical care nurses don’t disconnect ICU patients from lifesaving equipment and race them out of the ICU, down an elevator and clear across the hospital to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

But Sarah’s motherly instincts were kicking in. She needed to see her baby. Thankfully, her health was improving dramatically, which made the impromptu journey possible.

“She came down from needing 10 liters of oxygen to two liters, to breathing on her own,” Kalli said. “I was watching her improve right before my eyes.

So Kalli jumped into action.

She rounded up a wheelchair, stabilized Sarah, begged her charge nurse to cover her other patients and got ready to sprint.

“We just did everything we could. She really wanted to see her baby,” Kalli said.

Once Kalli wheeled Sarah into the NICU, the task of placing Kabrini into her mom’s arms was not simple.

“The NICU nurses took her out of her isolette and put her on Sarah’s chest,” said Kalli, who then snapped the family’s first photos.

“Pictures help us hold onto memories. The more people get to feel like humans and less like patients, the better,” Kalli said. “This was a really special moment.”

For Sarah, the sweet meeting seemed to last just minutes. In fact, Kalli patiently waited as the family bonded for 2 ½ hours.

During that time, Kalli watched Sarah blossom from a critically ill woman to a mother at peace.

“That morning, it was hard for her to take a step on her own. Then she was up out of bed, into the wheelchair and waltzed to see her baby. Her fears didn’t matter anymore. It was like she instantly decided, ‘I need to be strong for my baby.’”

The transport crew arrived all too soon to whisk Kabrini away.

But Kalli had made the first, magical meet-and-greet happen.

“You don’t really feel like a mom until you hold your baby,” Kalli said.

For Kalli, the life-affirming experience gave her more energy to keep doing her job during a tough point in the pandemic. She has been a nurse for nearly eight years and floats between the ICU and the Emergency Department. She has witnessed many heartbreaks during the pandemic.

Watching Sarah bond with Kabrini was the perfect antidote to so much sorrow.

“We hadn’t been getting a lot of positive outcomes. It was really nice to be with them,” she said. “That day, I got to take care of a person.”

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About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.