Denise Bruno apologized for the background noise on our call; she was mixing her daughter’s drink, who, 29 years ago, was born with an omphalocele defect and spent just shy of one year in the NICU.
Mariah wasn’t expected to live, Bruno tells me. Anticipating her baby’s birth in early summer 1991, she was put on bedrest in March. Mariah was born on May 29, 1991.
“I didn’t hold her until she was a month old,” Bruno recalls.
Without any kind of lactation support, Bruno pumped her milk which was given to Mariah through a gastric tube. No one on their health care team acknowledged Bruno’s efforts or the importance of human milk for her baby; and while Bruno credits her milk for seeding Mariah’s immune system and in part, her survival, she says that pumping her milk was terribly difficult.
“It was a horrible feeling for me because I felt like I wasn’t a mom,” she explains, noting that she never experienced early bonding with skin-to-skin snuggles.
Mariah endured severe complications from the surgery to relocate her organs into her abdominal cavity, open heart surgery, a medically-induced coma, hip surgery, a serious infection, and more.
When Mariah turned nine months old, Bruno became pregnant with her second baby. Later she had two more daughters.
“I think, how did I ever get through all of that?” Bruno wonders. “If someone told me ahead of time, this is what your life is going to be like, I would have thought I couldn’t do it. Mariah’s experience made me such a strong person.”
With such resilience, Bruno’s greatest desire is to help others.
Amidst severe medical challenges, welcoming new family members, and everything else life threw her way, Bruno started nursing school, became a certified yoga instructor, a massage therapist including infant massage, trained as a doula, and worked in a pediatric office and a women’s center.
Ultimately, she decided to stay home to care for Mariah, although she’s still practicing massage therapy and using other modalities to help bring calm to people’s lives.
“Infant massage and instructing yoga help me in helping others in this beautiful experience in bonding and making it calm and memorable,” Bruno adds.
Most recently, Bruno completed the online Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC). Before the course went online, it was inaccessible because she couldn’t leave her daughter to travel to the locations that it was being hosted.
“When I could do it online, I was like oh my god, I have to do this!” she exclaims.
Bruno reports appreciating most the course’s emphasis on counseling and empowering mothers to feel like they are enough.
Even through her most tumultuous times, Bruno says she harnessed the power of positive thought.
“I would put music up to my belly and think positive thoughts,” Bruno recalls of being on bedrest during her pregnancy with Mariah.
She hopes to impart this idea of mental strength on the new families she works with.
Bruno offers a last bit of advice: Always keep an open mind and listen to what parents have to say.
She stresses the importance of honoring parents’ instincts too and urges care providers to approach families holistically, rather than thinking compartmentally: “This is the problem; I have to fix it.” Most often, it’s more than that, she explains.
“Listen and get the whole picture,” she advises. “Offer guidance and reassurance.”
With this approach, parents and their babies have the best chance at building resilience, finding the connection we need to thrive, and cultivating the energy to pay it forward.