Back in September, I attended the Improving Birth Rally to promote evidence-based, informed health care decision making and to network with other normal birth supporters in my area. With brilliantly colored signs that read “Birth Matters”, “Know Your Options” and “Safe, Respectful Care” and balloons in hand, we stood united with moms, dads, health care providers and kids of all ages raising awareness.
As Willow’s interest in the balloons subsided, she met a darling, little pal Milo with the blondest, shiniest hair and dazzling eyes. Milo and Willow created gravel castles and trampled over weeds and dirt mounds together.
Waving my sign, I made small talk with Milo’s mom only to learn that she is doing amazing things for our community… all while dressing really fashionably, continuing her education and being an awesome mother. Jennifer Rudnik, RN, CLC, SNM is Milwaukee’s Renaissance Woman. I’m so proud to have her as a part of our community. Her work deserves to be showcased.
School Resource Nurse
Rudnik began her professional career working as a certified massage therapist specializing in prenatal and infant massage.
“I sort of gravitated toward women and women’s health,” she says which prompted her to apply for nursing school.
Currently, Rudnik serves as a School Resource Nurse (RN) for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) in the Pregnant and Parenting Youth Program where she provides pregnancy testing, prenatal care, education and support, general health education about STIs, birth control and nutrition and parenting support for moms and dads.
Milwaukee recently reported a large decline in teen pregnancies, but Rudnik works in a school where the pregnancy and parenting student rate is still at about 40 percent.
While working for the city health department as a public health nurse, Rudnik says there was only one lactation counselor available to clients although everyone she worked with serviced pregnant and parenting women.
“It seemed like the missing element,” Rudnik says of the lack of lactation professionals.
Rudnik enrolled in Healthy Children’s The Lactation Counselor Training Program to offer better lactation care to her clients.
Now, she frequently uses her lactation skills in the school setting to provide help and support for breastfeeding moms including finding them places to pump and store milk during school.
Before delivery, she and her pregnant students set up a plan so moms know exactly where they can safely pump, where to clean their supplies and where to store their milk. Rudnik says that all of the schools she serves are set up differently but all provide lactating mothers with accommodations other than a bathroom. Teachers and school administration are very supportive, she says.
Rudnik also co-facilitates a weekly, two hour support group for parenting students.
She and her colleague structure the program based on the parents’ needs and interests. Rudnik explains that she once planned to speak about STIs, birth control and safe sex but quickly tailored the material after realizing that many of the students were lacking knowledge about basic anatomy.
“They are so out of touch with their bodies,” she explains. “Sometimes pregnancy happens to them rather than it being a conscious choice.”
She goes on, “You need to be able to talk to the students in a way that they will respond; if they are just being read to by someone who is not really familiar with the way they think, it is going to set some distance between them.”
So many students within MPS deal with variables that one can’t even imagine, she adds.
Rudnik blames socioeconomic factors overall as the biggest challenge for pregnant and parenting teens.
“When you come from a low socioeconomic background, that’s going to create barriers to everything; education, medical providers, food, etc.,” Rudnik explains. “We need to be more cognizant of what they are going through and be more supportive instead of talking at them.”
Students battle other challenges like feelings of shame and lack of daycare which often affects their school attendance.
As Rudnik’s sessions progress throughout the school year, she and her students discuss things like creating birth plans, breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding, postpartum health and self advocacy during labor and delivery.
Gradually, students become more likely to share their experiences.
“It’s always interesting to get the students to talk with each other,” she says. “The goal is to get them to network with each other. Teens model other teens’ behavior.”
Rudnik’s supportive and encouraging approach proves successful especially when it comes to breastfeeding.
Last year, about 97 percent of her students initiated breastfeeding. All of these students breastfed for at least three months despite the fact that breastfeeding in certain cultures within Milwaukee is highly stigmatized.
“I strongly emphasize breastfeeding with students and try to make it as comfortable in school as possible,” she says.
In fact, Rudnik plans to personally demonstrate how to use a breast pump for her students.
“There’s nothing like having first hand experience to be able to empower others,” she says.
Currently, there is no data on the overall breastfeeding rates within MPS but Rudnik says this is something she and her colleagues will track this year.
Rudnik’s interest in maternal child health stems from a personal place as well. Becoming a mom has influenced her work “in pretty much every possible way” she says.
“It has made me more empathetic to students who are pregnant; I can relate a bit better to what they are going through and it has definitely made me feel more strongly about breastfeeding,” she adds.
After undergoing an emergency c-section with her son, Rudnik experienced a lot of trouble with breastfeeding initially.
“I’m really careful to tell women about what can happen as far as getting medication during labor and how it can affect breastfeeding,” she says.
She often reminds women to utilize the care of CLCs that are there for them and stresses the importance of all care providers having evidence-based knowledge about breastfeeding.
“It’s important that pediatricians, obstetricians and others have breastfeeding knowledge and that it’s current and up-to-date,” she says. “It’s really a disservice when they don’t and usually harmful.”
It would have saved me so much pain and misery if I had been told the things that I learned in the CLC course, she goes on.
Breastfeeding is especially important to Rudnik because she and her family are vegan.
“For me I never thought of formula as an option,” she says. “I would do anything to avoid formula unless there was an outstanding medical reason because I know what’s in formula.”
Rudnik adds that because of her family’s vegan diet, she would rely on soy formula which she says is not heavily regulated by the FDA.
To increase families’ access to pasteurized human milk, Rudnik expresses interest in working with Mother’s Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes to establish a milk depot in Milwaukee.
Rudnik is a graduate student in the Certified Nurse-Midwifery Program at Frontier Nursing University.
“I want to see women have access to the best care that they can get during pregnancy, labor and delivery and beyond,” she says. “The midwifery model of care really embodies that.”
She continues, “I’m really a firm believer that women’s health takes a back seat to men’s health and I’d like to see that change.”
For those of you wondering where Rudnik finds the energy to do all that she does, she thanks her very helpful husband and her supportive community and family.