For Michelle Stephens, who was born and raised in the Connecticut River Valley, Brattleboro Memorial Hospital (BMH) has been a central character in many of her life’s transitions, both as a child, and now as a parent of two daughters.

Born at BMH, Michelle grew up between Hinsdale and Vernon, settling in Brattleboro at the age of 18. One of her early associations with BMH came after the birth of her youngest sibling, when Michelle was in high school. After a difficult caesarean delivery her mother was hospitalized for a few days and after school each day Michelle walked from the high school to the hospital to visit. “All of the staff were so sweet to me,” she recalls. “They’d let me – a black nail polish-wearing teenager that others might walk around – pick up and take care of this tiny baby. It was the first time I had ever been treated like a responsible adult.”

Zack and Aria Stephens

Michelle’s husband, Zach, was also born at BMH – delivered by Cheri Ann Brodhurst who has since delivered both of Michelle and Zach’s daughters. His job as Programming Director for Insight Photography involves directing Exposures, a youth cross cultural arts program, whose summer program was sited at Marlboro College this year, and where Michelle and Zach were able to trade off childcare in between teaching their respective writing and photography workshops.

“I was at the top end of the campus with a van load of kids one day,” says Michelle, as a prelude to the story of how they recently ended up at BMH’s Emergency Department with their one-year old daughter Aria in the throes of a full-blown anaphylactic reaction to having tasted a cashew. “And my cell phone suddenly alerted me to three missed calls and a text message from my husband saying “Aria is having an allergic reaction, I need you.”

Michelle interrupts her own story to clarify: “My husband is a completely competent parent, so to see the words ‘I need you’ come across the screen…. I started driving down the hill with the van doors open.” By the time she reached the bottom of the hill, the seriousness of Aria’s reaction to the cashew was apparent and her parents immediately called 911. First responders were on scene within ten minutes, and Rescue arrived five minutes later. “Flying down Hogback Mountain in the back of an ambulance, complete with flashing lights and screaming sirens while watching your one year old, 20 pound daughter in a full blown anaphylactic reaction, struggling to breathe, hives from her hairline to her toes and barely conscious from all of the emergency drugs they had to give her just to get her to the hospital – that is the most terrifying thing you can imagine,” says Michelle.

Upon arriving at the BMH Emergency Department (ED), Michelle and her daughter were taken immediately into a treatment room. “The doctor and nurses were waiting for us in the room, which made me really impressed, but also really scared,” Michelle remembers. Though Aria was being attended to with a sense of speed and urgency, it did not feel to Michelle like the team was stressed or overwhelmed. She recalls feeling comforted by the doctor telling her that he also had a small child, “So I instantly knew that he knew what this was like, how scary this was for us.”

Though much of the event is now a blur, a few details have lodged themselves firmly in Michelle’s memory. “I remember how all of the staff talked directly to Aria,” she recounts. “Of course she’s too young to understand what they were saying to her, but it really helped reduce her fearfulness.” The ED staff explained everything they were doing and why, the reasons they were choosing some medications over others, and provided a continuous reassuring presence to both mother and child. “Not only did I feel like my child was in the best hands possible, I felt very well taken care of too,” recalls Michelle.

Aria Stephens

Aria responded beautifully to medical intervention, and was shortly snacking on Goldfish crackers and bouncing on the bed, but for Michelle the anxiety and stress of the event were more difficult to overcome. Once Aria’s condition was stabilized, Michelle was able to deal with painful memories that had surfaced upon their arrival at the ED when she realized they were in the same treatment room where her family had gathered to say goodbye to her grandmother just six months prior. “When my husband happened to mention that to the ED staff, within a matter of minutes they had arranged a room change for us. That was the most compassionate and humanizing thing they possibly could have done for us, and I feel like we wouldn’t have gotten that anywhere else.”

Winding through her story, Michelle often comes back to the words “kindness” and “compassion”. Reflecting back on the experience of her grandmother’s passing, she remembers not only how the BMH ED staff were so attentive to her grandmother, but how they cared for other family members as well. “It felt like we were all in this together,” she recalls “That whatever time we needed to deal with what we were dealing with, they could do that for us.” As the family gathered over the course of a few hours to say their good-byes, BMH staff took care to make sure Michelle’s very pregnant sister got off her feet and stayed hydrated, helped the family connect with a pastor, provided a phone for necessary calls, and helped attend to all of the complicated details such a difficult moment involves.

“It was actually quite peaceful, quite beautiful,” says Michelle. “They did what they needed to do quietly, gently, with such kindness and respect. My grandfather was able to hold her hand for as long as he needed to…it was those details that made it such an amazing experience.” Michelle relates that her grandmother was the primary caretaker of the entire family. “The love she had for her family and the care she gave us all was enough for her to survive major health issues,” she says. “So the fact that we were being so well taken care of by the ED staff during her passing may have helped her let go in peace.”

The “New Normal”
Food allergies are not new to the Stephens family. Zach has food allergies of his own, so reading labels and being vigilant about the sources of foods are ingrained family habits. But the “new normal” of adjusting their lives to establish safety for their one-year-old daughter — still too young to understand the dangers posed by cashews — is challenging. “We’re developing a list in our heads of ‘safe places’ for Aria,” says Michelle. “Home is safe, Elsa’s school is safe, as they are already a nut free environment, and BMH is now part of our safety net too.”

Michelle is further reassured by the communication between the BMH ED and Aria’s pediatrician. By the time the family showed up for their follow up appointment with their pediatrician, a full report of Aria’s ED visit, lab tests and medications had already been sent over via electronic medical records, relieving Michelle and Zach of the burden of remembering and relating the complicated details. Feeling slightly overwhelmed by the recent events, the knowledge that Aria’s medical history was well coordinated and documented between the two medical services served to bolster the parents’ confidence that important information was not going to fall through the cracks.

Reaching out to others:
Michelle is a well-known local freelance writer and blogger whose work can be found in the Brattleboro Reformer, her popular blog, “Juicebox Confessions”, as well as a 6,000 subscriber Facebook page through which she relates stories of the common joys and challenges of parenting. She sees it as a way of cutting through the isolation felt by many new parents and connecting with others.

Michelle and Zach’s pathway to parenthood has not been an easy journey, involving multiple miscarriages as well as post-partum anxiety. Michelle has candidly shared these struggles with her blog readers and Facebook followers in hopes of lessening stigma and offering support. “My blog started as an outlet,” says Michelle. “I needed it as a new mom, and I just assumed others needed it as well.” Though she has been generous in relating a wide range of her experiences as a new parent, she was reluctant to open up about the details and impact of Aria’s newly discovered nut allergy. “I felt like I didn’t have anything to offer anyone,” she says. “I was feeling so overwhelmed by this new reality, but when I finally did relate the story, I was just floored by the wave of support that came my way.” For a writer who writes to reach out and connect with others, Michelle found herself on the receiving end of compassion and understanding from parents of other children with nut allergies from around the world. “The tables have turned,” she says with a laugh. “And believe me; the irony is not lost on me!”

“I trust this place”
Whether it is the BMH Birthing Center where she has given birth to her two daughters, the New Mom’s Network, where she participated as a new mother and is now a frequent guest presenter, or the Lab, where she marvels at the phlebotomists’ skills in extracting blood quickly and painlessly from the tiny veins of her children, Michelle and her family have had enough interaction with the hospital to appreciate its evolution over time. “We are so lucky to have BMH,” she says. “I trust this place whole-heartedly, and even though the facility has expanded and grown in some really impressive ways, at its heart it still feels like the BMH of my childhood,” she continues. “There is a level of care provided here that exceeds expectations for a community of this size.”

As the Stephens family adjusts to the new reality of a life-threatening nut allergy, they are reassured by the presence of a local hospital they see as both an ally and a partner in their children’s wellness. “I’m so grateful for this hospital,” says Michelle. “I feel like we have a whole posse of caregivers behind us. With everything we’ve been through here, I’ve always felt like my children have been taken care of so beautifully, and so have I. I can come here as a scared mom and ask for help, and I will get it. There are no words to describe how comforting that feels.”