Lactation education

Community Care Award Recognizes Marisa Merlo, UConn Health Lactation Consultant

UConn Health lactation consultant Marisa Merlo is the first recipient of the Acelleron Community Care Award.

This award honors the person in the community who goes above and beyond to help. Merlo is credited with doing his best to help a family through tragedy after losing their baby at 31 weeks pregnant.

Merlo was named the inaugural winner of the Hope After Loss Compassionate Care Awards on June 8, but neither she nor Sarah Reitsma, who nominated her, were unable to attend.

It’s an emotional reunion for UConn Health lactation consultant Marisa Merlo, who hugs Jan Ferraro (left) of breast pump supplier Acelleron and former patient Sarah Reitsma (right). Reitsma and Ferraro had made a surprise visit to present the Merlot with the Acelleron Community Care award. (Photo by Chris DeFrancesco)

Merlo had a surprise on Tuesday when Reitsma and Jan Ferraro, director of education for Acelleron’s mom and baby division, visited UConn John Dempsey Hospital to celebrate the honor and present him with the community care award surrounded by his peers (who were on the secret).

“We are so honored to present Marisa Merlo with the incredibly special Acelleron Community Care Award,” said Ferraro. “Marisa was the help this family needed. As a lactation consultant, Marisa helped her give her breast milk. Marisa was the helper to guide her, walk by her side and help her through something very scary to do something incredibly generous to establish and maintain a milk supply.

Reitsma, from Farmington, shared that when she was pregnant with her third child, Grace, Grace was discovered to have trisomy 18, or Edward’s syndrome, a life-threatening chromosomal abnormality that affects approximately 1 in 2,000 pregnancies in United States. She came to UConn Health to deliver last November knowing Grace would be stillborn. Her interaction with Merlo that day would be very different from her previous visits as a breastmilk donor.

“I had already made the decision to donate again,” says Reitsma. “At such a difficult time, not just in the place of the grieving parent, but in their place as a caregiver – How do you support someone when their baby has died? And she was so warm, loving, kind and solidarity.

“And at a time when I really felt like my body had failed to keep my daughter alive, Marisa is here to tell me I’m a superstar because I can give this gift of breastmilk to babies, and she’s there to cheer me on and make me feel like I couldn’t be less of a failure.Having that kind of support was just amazing.

group portrait
From left: Dr. David Park, nurse Laura Karwoski, Jan Ferraro of Acelleron, lactation consultant Marisa Merlo, former patient Sarah Reitsma, nurse manager Lina Godfrey and Dr. Chris Morosky celebrate the handover of the Acelleron Community Care award in Merlo on August 10. in the Labor and Delivery Unit at UConn John Dempsey Hospital. Reitsma nominated Merlo in recognition of the care and support Merlo provided during a difficult time last fall. (Photo by Chris DeFrancesco)

In her heartfelt nomination letter, Reitsma wrote, “Marisa is an angel on earth. What was a horrible situation was immeasurably improved by his care. She will truly be the brightest light to all the patients she supports and cares for. She cared in such a deeply personal and empathetic way. She kissed me. I can’t tell you what that meant.

Merlo found out in June that she had been named the winner, but was unaware that nurse manager Lina Godfrey had arranged for Reitsma and Ferraro to come to the labor and delivery unit to introduce her to it. When Merlo arrived and saw them, she was overwhelmed with emotion.

“We go into the nursing profession with the goal of helping people to the best of our abilities,” Merlo says. “Being recognized for doing what I am passionate about is a humble honor that I will cherish forever. Some patients leave a lasting mark on your heart. Sarah is that patient for me. Caring for Sarah was both heartbreaking and heartwarming. Supporting her throughout her difficult journey has been a privilege and an honour. I consider myself lucky to have crossed paths with her. She is truly inspiring.

Breast milk is incredibly good for babies and can save the lives of premature babies in the NICU, as their intestines are too immature to process formula. In fact, NICU babies depend on donated breast milk to survive and fill them until their own mother’s milk arrives.

Learn more about UConn Health milk depositConnecticut’s first and only hospital milk depot for breast milk donations.