Dottie Hollingsworth and Shirley Ezell work different shifts in the nursery at Springhill Medical Center in Mobile, Ala., but they still find time to conspire. When the local Epilepsy Foundation lost its funding to educate parents-to-be about shaken baby syndrome, the two women talked it over in passing in the hallway and decided they'd better pick up the slack.
"I said, ‘We need legislation to mandate education. They lost their funding, but we can't let that upset whether we tell these parents or not,' " recalls Hollingsworth.
Soon, the pair of assistant nurse managers, along with Springhill attorney Timothy Kaufman, began drafting legislation that would require hospitals in the state to educate patients and their families about shaken baby syndrome.
SBS, also called abusive head trauma, occurs when a person holds a baby too tightly and shakes it, or slams the child into hard surfaces. Three out of 10 babies die, and those who survive can suffer from blindness, hearing loss, developmental delays and seizures. According to Ezell, Alabama spends $540 million yearly on the effects of shaken baby syndrome. "That's the direct and indirect cost on our judicial system, law enforcement, health care, and long-term care of these children," she says.
The legislation did not pass, but the women had other plans brewing. They traveled to Texas for training to become certified instructors in child-abuse prevention, then returned a few years later to learn crime-scene investigation, "which taught us what to look for, how to interview people, and what kind of pictures to take when there is a shaken baby in the home," Ezell says.
They also designed a downloadable brochure on shaken baby syndrome and posted it on the Springhill website. Any hospital can copy and distribute the brochure with their logo on it.
Ezell gives community presentations as well. "We'll talk to anybody who invites us," she says. "Clubs, church groups. I'll always mention it to high school students interested in the medical field who come through the nursery on tours, because these are the kids who are going to be our future parents."
Last year, the Alabama Hospital Association recognized Ezell's efforts, naming her one of Alabama' s Hospital Heroes. But Ezell says she couldn't do it without Hollingsworth. "She and I do everything together. We are a team. She is a good idea girl, and I'm the person who speaks," Ezell says.
Hollingsworth and Ezell are both board members on the Alabama Baby Coalition, a federally supported nonprofit that reviews fetal and infant deaths in Mobile County and works to shape policy to prevent future deaths.
"Dottie and Shirley are tireless advocates for infants and moms. They take every opportunity to educate the public and to raise awareness," says Tony Bondora, an epidemiologist for the county health department and coordinator for the Alabama Baby Coalition.
Besides serving on a number of the coalition's committees, the pair is active in its Baby Rest program, which organizes an annual memorial service for stillborn babies and infants who have passed away without a private funeral service.
Ezell lost a baby herself to a cord accident in 1981 and had no say in the disposal of her child's remains. Since then, she's helped shape a hospital bereavement protocol that includes allowing parents to bathe and clothe the bodies and take family pictures if they wish.
"We let them hold them as long as they want," says Ezell. "If a mother wants to bathe her own baby, we let her."
And thanks to yet another Hollingsworth program called Angel Babies, the nursery has a closetful of tiny outfits for babies who have died as early as 20 weeks old. Volunteers at the hospital make the clothes, so when the parents "see the baby and they're all dressed up and they have their little hat on and booties, it's their baby," Hollingsworth says.
The nurses hope to find a lawmaker to reintroduce the shaken baby legislation.