Making buddies in tough times in Mount Sinai’s NICU


As Marian Rees comforted new mother Vanessa Horner in Mount Sinai Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), she couldn’t promise that her baby, born at just 25 weeks, was going to be fine. She couldn’t tell her not to worry. What she could tell her, was to have hope.

Marian could speak to Vanessa in a way that not many others could. Just two years before, Marian had a baby of her own – at just 25 weeks. Normally, a pregnancy lasts between about 38 and 40 weeks. Marian experienced the same feelings of shock, fear, and denial as Vanessa, but two years later, Marian’s baby Ben is strong, healthy, and weighs far more than the two pounds (830 grams) he weighed at birth.

“I knew I could be an inspiration to others,” says Marian. “Ben was walking, talking proof that hope prevails.”

For the past year, Marian has been providing hope and support to mothers of pre-term babies through Mount Sinai’s innovative Parent Buddy Program, which is designed to bring together parents who have had premature babies with new parents facing the same challenges.

Created in 1991, the Parent Buddy Program is a partnership between parents that is integrated with the care provided by clinicians and hospital staff. Parents involved in the program say their experiences were made easier by the “wonderful” staff, doctors and nurses in the NICU. Mount Sinai is well-suited for such a program. With almost 7,000 births a year – and about 1,000 of them pre-term – Mount Sinai is Ontario’s busiest maternity hospital.

Marian had a buddy of her own during her experience in the NICU. Rocio Gray, whose seven-year-old son, Stephen, was delivered at Mount Sinai Hospital, also at 25 weeks, has been volunteering with the program for more than seven years. Rocio is so committed to the program she now trains new parents to be buddies.

“I am involved because I think it is so important for parents to talk to someone who has been there,” says Rocio. “When I was a buddy, I could truly say that I understood what the other parents were going through. My experience gave them something to believe in.”

More than 60 trained parent buddies representing over 20 languages and cultures are involved in the program and at least 20 new parents are trained each year. Vanessa, whose first language is Spanish, was happy to learn that her buddy also spoke Spanish. Marian also benefited from Rocio’s Spanish.

“I will always be grateful to Mount Sinai Hospital for introducing me to my buddy, who spoke my language in more ways than one,” says Vanessa, who also says she can’t wait for the day when son Diego has his first birthday, which is when new parents are eligible to become buddies.

“The NICU parent buddy program creates opportunities for support based on common experience during a highly stressful, uncommon event when the normal supports of family and friends are insufficient.” says Mount Sinai Hospital Social Worker Frida Ardal. “Its success is based on the dedication and outstanding commitment of parent buddies at Mount Sinai Hospital. It illustrates the powerful impact of shared common medical experience and, ideally, every hospital should have programs like this.”