Constable: Vernon Hills nurse bathes in newborns' success
As much as she enjoys the taco bar, pizza night and all the other ways NorthShore Highland Park Hospital celebrates the National Nurses Week that just ended, veteran nurse Susan Simon of Vernon Hills grabs the most fun picking up a last-minute, four-hour shift for a co-worker in the new birthing and delivery center.
"It was worth it," says a grinning Simon. "I gave three baths."
Giving first baths to newborns is Simon's specialty. Since her nursing career began four decades ago, Simon, who turns 64 later this month, has bathed about 45,000 babies. Becoming a licensed practical nurse at Oakton Community College before earning her registered nursing degree at the College of Lake County in 1980, Simon has four decades of medical experience, but she's famous for her first baths.
"I bathe a lot of babies. That's my claim to fame," she says. "Bring me 100 babies, I don't care. I'll give every baby a bath all day long. It's so silly, isn't it?"
Not to the happy parents who take home precious babies and send Simon thank-you notes, letters and "First Bath" photographs.
"I have two albums this thick at home of baby pictures and baths that people sent me," says the nurse, whose white hair and 6-foot frame make her easy to recognize and remember. "Patients come in with their second kid and take out their phones and say, 'Here you are giving our first baby his first bath.'"
She gets recognized while shopping or walking her dog, Abby. Once, she was in a line at the airport in Providence, Rhode Island, "and the man in front of me said, 'You gave my baby his first bath,'" Simon says.
She's given first baths to babies of parents who also got their first baths from Simon. She's also an expert at getting babies to learn the "suck, swallow, breathe" technique essential for breast-feeding.
"I love to teach them. There's a lot of satisfaction in this," Simon says, noting that she combines her talents in one full-service operation called "Susan's Spa and Sucking School."
Parents ask, "Do you have any appointments today?" During one shift last week, she bathed three newborns and gave a "spa day" to a baby leaving the hospital.
"I can dress them in their going-home outfits," she says, almost squealing with giddiness. "I'm crazy about getting a good set of footprints for the parents, making sure their baby gets a sparkling bath, and I love to dress up newborn babies."
In her four decades of nursing, Simon says she appreciates the medical improvements, such as devices that instantly measure the baby's oxygen level or drugs that mature the lungs and improve breathing. The teaching and support have improved, too, she says. Even baths have changed, with babies eating and bonding with mothers before Simon cleans them.
"It was a big adjustment to let these women have their dirty babies," Simon says.
She also got rid of the blow dryer she once used to style a newborn's locks.
First baths now are often done bedside. Simon says she gets a special joy removing monitors, peeling away stickers and tape, and bathing babies whose health required them to spend extra days, weeks or months in the hospital.
"You can do what you wanted to do all along," she says. "Give them a good bath."
She's had her share of "it happens" moments with babies relieving themselves during a bath, but in spite of the soapy water, squirming babies and slippery situation, Simon's never had an accident.
"I've never dropped a baby. Are you kidding?" Simon says. "That's the greatest fear."
As a child growing up in Lincolnwood, "I loved baby-sitting and I loved taking care of other people's kids," Simon says.
After graduating from Niles West High School, she volunteered to work at a kibbutz in Haifa, Israel, from 1973 through 1975.
"I arrived there one day before the war started," she says, noting that the Arab-Israeli War, sometimes called the Yom Kippur War, didn't stop her from doing her job. "I picked grapefruit for four hours a day and took care of children for eight hours a day, six days a week."
After two years of caring for four boys, Simon returned home, married, had two sons of her own, and balanced her nursing career with her family needs. In an effort to make sure she didn't bring home chickenpox, the flu, colds or other illnesses to her sons, Simon found her niche in birth and delivery.
"The newborn nursery has to be the cleanest place in the hospital, and that's how I ended up here," she says. "I'm so in the right job. It's such a privilege to be involved in this most intimate part of their lives. It's such an honor."
While Nurses Week is meant to give nurses credit for their work, Simon says her husband, Steven, always tells her, and others, how proud he is of her.
"I feel a lot of respect here, from the doctors, the patients, the staff," Simon says of the hospital. "They are so thankful. I lucked out. It's a super fun place to work."
She's worked at Highland Park Hospital since 1981, speaks English, Spanish and Hebrew, and says she enjoys the diversity the hospital draws.
"No matter how educated they are, they're all on the same playing field," Simon says, noting that parenthood brings the same challenges, regardless of race, age, schooling or income. "I had a dad who hired a stretch limo to take his baby home because he was scared to drive."
Making sure parents are equipped to care for their babies at home is her job, Simon says.
"A baby is a baby is a baby. All babies have the exact same needs," Simon says. "There are only three things you need to do: Keep them clean, feed them well and love them a lot."