Veronica Shaffer offers her tiny patients a unique level of support and understanding from someone who’s been in their shoes — or incubator, in this case. Like the babies she cares for each day, she, too, began her life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. It’s that experience that forever shaped her as a person and her path in life.
Though Veronica doesn’t remember her time at Akron Children’s, hearing countless stories growing up about her medical journey as a baby motivated her to help others just like her.
The old idiom, “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes,” is not just an expression, but instead a motto she lives by as the hospital’s newest nurse practitioner at Akron Children’s Hospital NICU at St. Elizabeth’s Boardman Hospital.
She makes it a priority to educate families and heavily involve them in treatment so they feel a part of the process, instead of watching it from the sidelines. She’s hands-on and makes sure to talk to the babies, too, so they hear a gentle, comforting voice.
“I am the person I am today because of the great care I received here. I was given a gift and I wanted to pay it forward,” said Veronica, who resides in New Castle, PA, with her husband, Greg, and their 3 healthy, teenage children. “I can’t describe how happy and fortunate I feel to get to work for the hospital that enabled me to be here today. That itself is a dream come true.”
From incubator to neonatal nurse practitioner
Veronica was born at 32 weeks. She weighed a mere 2 pounds, 8 ounces, and suffered from respiratory distress, vision problems and other developmental delays.
But soon after being released, she started regressing in her milestones and her head was rapidly growing. At 5 months, Veronica was diagnosed with hydrocephalus and spent a month in Akron Children’s PICU. Doctors discovered blood vessels in her brain had ruptured and caused bleeding and fluid to collect on the brain.
Once stabilized, they performed several ventricular taps to remove the excess fluid. She spent the next several months going in and out of Akron Children’s to perform serial taps to remove the blood clots and fluid off her brain. Eventually, the issue resolved and her brain began functioning normally again.
“Because of all the pressure on my brain, I had to relearn everything,” said Veronica, who suffers from severe asthma, but otherwise has led a healthy life. “I went through tons of physical and occupational therapy here to relearn milestones, like rolling over, sitting up and how to eat.”
Veronica always knew she’d return to the NICU, but this time she’d be on the other side. Nearly 25 years later, her dream began to take shape.
During nursing school in 2008, Veronica returned to Akron Children’s to launch her nursing career as a nurse technician at St. Elizabeth’s NICU.
One year later, she transitioned to a registered nurse and soon went on to become a nurse practitioner at St. Elizabeth’s to take the lead in their care.
“I absolutely love it,” she said. “Being at St. Elizabeth’s, we are there from the very beginning in the delivery room and every step of the way until babies get to go home. I love taking care of the sickest babies because you can offer the most care and make a bigger impact.”
Veronica is leading the charge to better protect babies’ skin as the first in her department to become wound-care certified. When born early, babies’ skin isn’t fully developed and can get injured or burn easily. She is working hard to develop ways to prevent it from sloughing off and getting damaged by medical devices.
If you ask her, it’s no surprise the most gratifying part of her role is providing care for the babies and offering hope to families. Some days are bleak and very difficult, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Babies can and do get better, go home and grow up to be healthy, successful adults.
After all, Veronica is a shining example. She started out so small with many health issues, but now she’s working hard on the other side to give back.
“I hope to instill in families that just because their baby was born early and is very sick, it doesn’t count them out in life,” she said. “It doesn’t mean they won’t one day move mountains and reach their dreams. No one ever imagines their tiny baby in the NICU, but that doesn’t define those babies. It’s just one little hiccup in their life journey.”