All about family: Mother-daughter duos (and trios) give back as nurses

In 2005, the Lu family found more than just a home in the United States, they found a family.

At Driscoll Children’s Hospital, they were met with open arms after a move from the Philippines. Tonette Lu, her husband and their daughters, just 6 and 7 years old at the time, discovered a new life in the U.S. — and a second chance. It’s one they are now happy to extend to babies and South Texas families through their work in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

They are just one of the mother-daughter nursing teams that give back to the community they call home by caring for the region’s tiniest newborns.

Working in the Driscoll NICU for the past 18 years has led to many fond memories for Tonette and both her daughters, Christianne Lu and Danielle Lu, now NICU nurses. Practically growing up at Driscoll, the sisters know its towers and floors well.

After all, the hospital is woven into the fabric of their childhood memories. The women recall Christmas celebrations at Driscoll, when halls were decked, and trees shined as bright as the patients and their families.

These memories have driven them to give back.

“As I grew up and saw my mom be the NICU nurse that she is, I wanted to be a part of an incredible and special team that specializes in helping heal babies and the next generation,” said Danielle Lu. “This is the time where they’re the most vulnerable, and not only the babies, but the families as well.

“To be able to be a part of a team that is able to help heal babies and get them discharged to reach their full capacity and full potential, that’s really rewarding.”

The NICU at Driscoll Children’s Hospital is designated Level IV by the Texas Department of State Health Services — denoting the highest level of care for premature and critically ill babies. It was the first NICU in South Texas to earn this designation in 2017. Since then, the Driscoll team has worked hard to maintain this designation.

Newborns admitted to any Driscoll NICU have a dedicated team of specialists to meet their unique health care needs, ensuring they receive the best possible care.

Christianne Lu, whose own daughter was a preemie, can personally attest to that.

“When I see (everyone and) my mom working with the patients, I feel like she puts in 110% because she’s really making sure that the patients are well taken care of,” Christianne said. “Seeing that work ethic makes me want to work twice as hard… She’s been here at Driscoll for 18 years, and that just goes to show that she loves what she does. And she loves the people that she works with. She loves Driscoll itself.”

Just like her own children grew to love Driscoll.

“I always say that kids will be our future,” said Tonette Lu. “They will be the future nurses, doctors, teachers. And then, if they’re sick, we want to make sure that they will be able to be taken care of so that they can go back to their families and (help them) become what they want to be.”

Maybe even a future NICU nurse.

Inspiring the next generation

Before even starting her work at Driscoll, Andrea Aguilar has always known that her mother is a natural caretaker. Compassionate and funny, “she’s always pushed me to work my hardest.”

And Aguilar has witnessed firsthand her mother’s passion both inside and outside of the NICU.

“We’ve been out in public and we’ve seen babies that she’s taken care of,” Aguilar said. “And I see the parents hugging her and thanking her, and I can just see how important and how much of an impact that she’s made on their lives.”

For Teelen Aguilar, it’s about making an impact in ways that might seem just as small as Driscoll’s tiniest patients, but the result is big — and lifechanging.

“When we go out people say, ‘You took care of my baby… You were the first one who gave me the chance to hold my baby. You were the first one who gave (my baby) a bath. You were the first one who fed my baby,’” explained Teelen, who has taken care of Driscoll NICU babies for the past 10 years. “It makes you feel like you’ve made a difference in their lives. And even those simple things, just giving a bath to their babies, is something to them.”That experience inspires Aguilar as she strives to emulate her mother’s excellence in nursing and give back to the South Texas community she calls home — and the hospital where everyone knows her name. “The last 10 years, I've met (mom’s co-workers); I’ve gone to dinners with them. And they’re also like my family,” she said. “They’ve watched me grow up, so just having all those health care workers around and hearing their stories also, it’s just so inspiring.”

"Heart and soul"

Chris Joyal has served as Driscoll NICU Director for the past decade. Over that time, its reach has grown. This year, Driscoll opened the first seamlessly integrated Level III NICU operating within CHRISTUS Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi – South.

Driscoll’s new Neonatal Care Center is a 24-bed NICU providing critical medical care for premature, sick and critically ill infants in the same place where they were born — close to their mother. This innovative collaboration provides the highest level of comprehensive care for both mothers and newborns.

This care center is just another example of Driscoll’s holistic approach to care for families — and that extends to its staff.

“Driscoll is about family centered care,” said Joyal. “(To extend) family centered care, we also must have a family centered environment. And what that means is we’ve seen a lot of our tenured nurses that have had children, and we’ve raised our own children to become health care professionals.”

Many of these new nurses, like the Aguilars and the Lus, now work alongside their mothers.

“We’re able to talk about that to our patients and the mothers that we serve,” he said. “It makes a big impact to them because they know that if we’re bringing in our own daughters to work in this environment, it’s something special and that says a lot about Driscoll. It says a lot about the nurses. It says a lot about how these mothers have raised their daughters to become health care professionals and nurses, to provide that same service that they’ve been providing during their tenure.”

“The most important thing that shines in the NICU is the staff that cares for the babies that we serve,” Joyal said. “They provide their heart and soul each time they come to work. And I’m very proud and blessed to be part of the team.”

While these mother-daughter NICU nurses share so much, there’s an even greater commonality they possess: Hope.“We always have hope,” said veteran nurse Aguilar. “Miracles happen every day in the NICU. You always have to have hope that something good will come out of it, that, in the end, these babies will go out of those double doors and be home.”

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