In The Spotlight Westmont woman's calling to care for infants led to charitable fund; 5K set for Aug. 20

Jul. 24—JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome start life in a state of heightened distress that prevents them from feeding normally.

But a special 11-inch-by-20-inch weighted torso blanket, weighing one pound — and used under the supervision of a health-care professional — can help soothe a baby enough to be fed.

Providing those blankets to hospitals has become a mission of Westmont resident Katie Lynch.

In addition to spending 12 hours a day studying for medical school, Lynch, 27, operates a charitable fund called Worth the Weight.

Lynch established the fund through the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, along with co-founder Marisa Peruso, formerly of Kittanning, Armstrong County, and a Johnstown resident.

Peruso met Lynch during their undergraduate years at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Both were studying to be nutritionists.

"She is a very positive, bubbly person," Peruso said of Lynch.

"She carries joy with her. People can feel that. She brings a light into the room and is very kind and compassionate."

Peruso moved to Johnstown in 2017 because it is the hometown of her husband, Uriah Peruso.

Lynch proposed the idea for the charity, and Peruso was on board.

"We love the town and want to give back to the people here," Peruso said.

"We were like, 'We could actually do this to help our community.' "

Worth the Weight was launched in December 2021 and has provided weighted blankets to infants in intensive care units throughout the region, Lynch said.

"The original goal was to raise $1,500 by February, but we tripled that in the first month and we were able to send blankets to Johnstown, Erie, Philadelphia and Cumberland, Maryland," she said.

"People in the area really want to help," she said. "I'm still kind of shocked about it."

Lynch has a fundraiser slated for August. A 5K to benefit the fund is scheduled for 8 a.m. Aug. 20 in Old Westmont. Lynch said registrations will be accepted until Aug. 5.

"We are aiming to raise $5,000, and we have $3,100 raised so far," she said.

A 2020 study published in the official journal of the National Association of Neonatal Nurses found evidence that weighted blankets are a safe and inexpensive intervention to use when caring for infants with neonatal abstinence syndrome.

"With the increasing prevalence of opioid abuse, hospital staffs are treating increasing numbers of infants diagnosed with neonatal abstinence syndrome," the study said.

Infants with the syndrome can display a range of symptoms related to dysfunctional regulation of their nervous systems, including hyperactivity, irritability, tremors, restlessness, increased respiratory rate and poor feeding.

"Infants with NAS appeared to be calmer and more comfortable when a weighted blanket is used," the study said.

Lynch, a 2012 Westmont Hilltop High School graduate, began thinking about Worth the Weight while in her early years of medical school.

"A lot happened in medical school, and I thought, 'What can I do to fill my cup up again and give back?' " she said.

Lynch is a full-time medical student through Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine at Seton Hill, Greensburg, and is living back home while completing a rotation at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown.

She is set to complete her education in two years and begin her career as a doctor of osteopathic medicine in neonatology.

"I have a soft spot for kids," she said.

"I love watching them grow and see the world with fresh eyes."

Lynch's mother, Debra "Debbie" Lynch, manager of the neonatal intensive care unit at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center, has inspired her choice of career as well as a direction for starting her charity.

"One night she got back home from an eight-hour shift and was called right back because of an infant.

"I thought, 'That's so cool. That baby needs her.'

"She's a health-care hero, even though she doesn't like that term. I saw her as that growing up," she said.

In one of their many discussions about patient care, her mother mentioned a need for weighted blankets.

Lynch's faith in God and firsthand accounts of poor patient care while working in hospitals during and after earning her undergraduate degree from IUP have also shaped her goal to improve the medical system.

"If I claimed to have all the answers for how health care should be provided and how health-care professionals should conduct themselves, I likely wouldn't need to be in school slaving away at the books. But I think there are many factors that go into the issue, mainly unrealistic metrics and health insurance demands, as well as poor staffing, which has only worsened since the pandemic started," she said.

"However, I would argue the poor staffing was a product of the unrealistic metrics and insurance demands leading to health-care worker burnout and dissatisfaction."

From a young age, she didn't like doctors.

"It wasn't because they had needles or invaded my personal space for physical exams, although neither was fun. It was because my pediatricians didn't address me first — or at all — when they walked into the room.

"Even as a young child, I can remember wanting to be talked to and interacted with. I didn't understand all the lingo, but I wanted to feel I had a seat at the table."

But the example of good doctors, she said, has been key to her career path.

"When I was born, I was born blue and not breathing. I had to be resuscitated multiple times," she said.

"My parents were told the deficits to my brain wouldn't be realized until I was 1 year old.

"I have no deficits and grew up hearing about the heroic care I received the day of my delivery and that God kept me on this earth for a purpose, which organically grew into my love and respect for neonatology."

If she's not working or studying, she's running, at coffee shops or leading worship at West Hills Community Church.

"My faith keeps me going," she said. "I feel I was called to this career path and I try to live that out as best I can.

"Any way to help babies without giving them more medicine is a good thing. Hospitals we've partnered with are excited about it. I am really happy to be a part of it."