NEWS | September 16, 2020

NICU mom becomes NICU nurse

Jennifer Swenson’s personal experience in the NICU changed her life’s mission


Nursing was never on Jennifer Swenson’s radar. She came from a family of nurses but pursued a career as a corrections officer in Ohio. For more than 15 years, she moved up the ranks to the position of sergeant, working in a state prison with more than 600 inmates.

Jennifer Swenson Jennifer Swenson

She had just completed law school and passed the bar exam, with the hopes of becoming a corrections attorney, when she became pregnant with her first child. Life changed.

Swenson started retaining water and began having puffiness in her face and hands. She soon gained 70 pounds of fluid and was diagnosed with preeclampsia and HELLP Syndrome, a life-threatening pregnancy complication that almost took her life. To save Swenson, doctors needed to deliver her daughter early.

Baby Audrey was born at 28 weeks and two days. She was only 1 pound, 14 ounces.

“It was very scary. I wasn’t a nurse and I hadn’t had babies before, but the nurses at the bedside in the NICU brought so much hope,” Swenson said. “I would call in the middle of the night when I couldn’t be there and talk to the nurse about how she was doing. The nurses gave us reassurance and explained everything in detail. They used terms we could wrap our heads around.”

Audrey spent 80 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in Ohio. During that time, Audrey had a bilateral brain hemorrhage and was told that she may have potential complications. She wasn’t producing her own red blood cells. Swenson leaned on the NICU team to help her through this unimaginable time.

When her daughter was discharged from the hospital, Swenson started to think about giving back in some way.

“I started to think that I needed to give back to what was given to us. I wanted to help other moms in the NICU,” Swenson said.

A few years later, Swenson went back to college and completed an accelerated bachelor’s degree in nursing. The rest, as they say, is history.

She has been a neonatal nurse for 10 years now and has been at UC Davis Children’s Hospital since January 2013. She was a NICU nurse and then was promoted to assistant NICU nurse manager in September 2013.

“Going into the NICU … that is my passion. I just told a mom this morning, ‘I was you. I was a mom at the bedside, needing reassurance and feeling mommy guilt.’ I had to do this job. The NICU is a scary place and I love that I can give families a different perspective because of what I have been through,” said Swenson, whose daughter Audrey is now a 15-year-old high school sophomore who has had no lasting effects from having had a significant brain hemorrhage or from being born premature.

Swenson’s average work day includes managing about 180 NICU nurses, ensuring they have all that they need to do their jobs, and organizing transfers of critically ill and preterm infants from other hospitals as well as the delivery room at UC Davis Medical Center.  

But she also gets to know all the babies and the families within the unit and help them through this fragile time.

“I had the chance to introduce a mom to her triplets for the first time recently. Those are the kinds of things that I love about my job. Being with families for those precious moments and sharing it with them is what warms my heart,” Swenson said. “This is my calling.”