Denver-Based Visiting Nurse Program Helps Empower First-Time Moms

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Photo: Visiting nurse 1 | Cecilia Sanchez
Cecilia Sanchez plays with her son Jericho at her home in Alamosa, Colorado.

Cecilia Sanchez is a single mom who was on her own the day her infant son’s umbilical cord fell off. That’s an event that routinely happens a week or two after birth, but Sanchez didn’t know what to do.

“I was freaking out,” said the 23-year-old single mother from Alamosa, in southern Colorado’s rural San Luis Valley.

She needed advice. But she doesn’t have a close relationship with her mother, so she called someone else: Stephanie Carino, a nurse with Valley-Wide Health Systems. Carino has counseled Sanchez through the pregnancy and after birth in weekly visits to Sanchez’s tiny apartment on the edge of town.

“It's been awesome to have somebody to help me along the way,” Sanchez said.

Carino’s visit is part of Nurse-Family Partnership, a Denver-based program that sends visiting nurses into the homes of low-income, first-time parents across the country. Sanchez said before she had her son, Jericho, she was a party girl. So her friends were surprised she volunteered for the program.

Photo: Visiting nurse 2 | Stephanie Carino, Cecilia Sanchez
Stephanie Carino, left, a nurse with Nurse Family Partnership, visits with Cecilia Sanchez and her son Jericho in Alamosa, Colorado.

“A few of my friends were like, 'You signed up for supervision? You signed up for someone to watch you and come check on you?' And I'm like, 'Yes! I've never had a baby before. I don't know what I'm doing,' "Sanchez said.

The worst came recently, Sanchez said, when she was separated from baby Jericho for a month and a half during a custody battle with the father. Carino still came to the house to visit.

“She'd reassure me and let me know things were going to be all right,” Sanchez said.

When Jericho came back, Sanchez wasn't making enough milk to breastfeed.

“We worked on other ways to bond with him and other ways to be close to him and that's what really pulled me through with it,” Sanchez said.

It helps that Carino is not just a nurse but a mother herself. She has a 12-year-old and a nine-month-old.

“I know the struggles,” Carino said. “I know what these women are going through."

Carino was just a teen when she had her first child. She connected with a visiting nurse who helped her get through the ups and downs. Now, she says it's her turn.

Model Replicated Across U.S.

Federal cash allowed Nurse-Family Partnership and similar programs to spread across the country in recent years.

Most federal funding comes from the Federal Home Visiting Program, which Nurse-Family Partnership officials say is not in jeopardy. And in Colorado, Nurse-Family Partnership is mostly funded by a settlement paid by tobacco companies to the state government.

But some federal funds come from Medicaid, which could see big changes soon. A Republican-sponsored plan to replace the Affordable Care Act would cut Medicaid funding and provide block grants to states. That could change how much some states allocate to visiting nurse programs.

The program’s founder, Dr. David Olds, first sent nurses to visit low-income pregnant women and new mothers in Elmira, New York, in the 1970s. He spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner.

Editor's note: An earlier headline misstated when Nurse Family Partnership was established. It was founded in 2003, not 1977 -- though Dr. Olds' work on visiting nurses began in the 1970s. An earlier version of the story also mischaracterized potential changes in federal funding to visiting nurse programs. The current version is correct.