Motherhood arrives by phone for UNM nurse

May 12—Even for an experienced mother and nurse, parenting a medically fragile child straight out of emergency care was a daunting experience for Olivia Peña.

In 2022, Peña was working her shift as a registered nurse at the University of New Mexico Hospital when she received a call that changed her life.

A baby girl, Addison, had been born prematurely in January 2022 and was in UNMH's neonatal intensive care unit, a state official told her.

Would Peña be interested in providing foster care for Addison?

The UNM Children's Hospital pediatric nurse visited Addison in the NICU and was startled to find a tiny newborn connected to a fleet of medical devices.

"I fell in love with her the second I saw her," Peña recalled.

"It was scary, with all the cords and wires and monitors and everything that was happening," she said. Addison weighed only 2 pounds and was bleeding from both sides of her brain.

"She was actively having seizures when I met her, so that's pretty scary," Peña recalled.

Peña and her husband had been foster parents for seven years and had ample experience raising infants, she said.

Even still, Addison's health problems made this decision extraordinary.

She reached out to her "support team," including her husband, mother and two children, ages 12 and 15.

"I don't jump into anything I don't feel my family can't handle," Peña said. "Because if anybody doesn't feel confident and able to help care for this child, I won't be able to do it."

Everyone in the family was "on board," she said.

Peña began making regular visits to the NICU, she said.

"I went and saw her every day, even if it was for 15 minutes," she said. "I wanted her to know my voice and my laugh and how loud I am, because I'm a pretty loud person."

The personal attention was a "game changer" for Addison's medical condition.

"From that point forward, you can just see changes in her," Peña said. "She went from being this little skeleton baby to start getting her plump cheeks and her plump body."

While Addison was in the NICU, her birth mother made a decision to allow Peña and her family to raise the girl. The mother notified Peña in a late-night email.

The decision was highly emotional for both women.

"I know for her to make that sacrifice and that decision was so difficult for her," Peña said of the girl's biological mother. "So on one hand, I was so happy. On the other hand, I was so sad."

After six months in the NICU, Addison was discharged and is living with Peña and her family. Peña is in the process of adopting the girl through the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, a UNM spokeswoman said.

The NICU holds a "graduation" for its young patients when they are released.

"We got her this big old fancy pink dress, and we dolled her all up and we put on her little graduation hat," Peña said. All the medical staff turned out, waving pompoms and cheering as Peña and Addison left the unit, she said.

"She has such a wild and upbeat personality," she said of Addison. "It's just amazing to see how happy and loving and outgoing she is. I'm very lucky because I don't have to let go of her."