Community Care Award Recognizes UConn Health Lactation Consultant Marisa Merlo

August is National Breastfeeding Month. UConn Health’s lactation consultant Marisa Merlo has received a Community Care Award for going above and beyond to help a patient.

group portrait award presentation

UConn Health lactation consultant Marisa Merlo receives the the Acelleron Community Care Award, with Acelleron's Jan Ferraro (left) and nominator Sarah Reitsma (right). Behind them is the "Littlest Loves Library" Reitsma donated to UConn Health as a supportive resource for other parents coping with the loss of a child. (Photo by Chris DeFrancesco)

UConn Health’s 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 recognized for going above in beyond in helping a family through tragedy after the loss of their baby at 31 weeks of pregnancy.

Merlo was named the inaugural honoree at the Hope After Loss Compassionate Care Awards June 8, but neither she nor Sarah Reitsma, who nominated her, was able to attend.

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

Merlo got a surprise Tuesday when Reitsma and Jan Ferraro, director of education in the Mom and Baby Division of Acelleron, visited UConn John Dempsey Hospital to celebrate the honor and present her with the community care award surrounded by her peers (who were in on the secret).

“We are so very honored to present Marisa Merlo with the incredibly special Acelleron Community Care Award,” Ferraro says. “Marisa was the helper this family needed. As a lactation consultant, Marisa helped her donate her breast milk. Marisa was the helper to guide her, walk beside her and help her through something very scary to do something incredibly generous in establishing and maintaining a milk supply.”

Reitsma, of Farmington, shared that when she was pregnant with her third child, Grace, Grace was found to have trisomy 18, or Edward’s Syndrome, a life-threatening chromosomal abnormality that impacts about 1 out of every 2,000 pregnancies in the U.S. She came to UConn Health to deliver last November with the knowledge Grace would be stillborn. Her interaction with Merlo that day would be much different than during her previous visits as a breast milk donor.

“I had already made the decision that I wanted to donate again,” Reitsma says. “In a moment that is so difficult, not just in may shoes as the grieving parent, but in her shoes as a provider — How do you support somebody when their baby has died? And she was just so effortlessly warm and loving and kind and supportive.

“And in a moment where I really felt like my body had failed to keep my daughter alive, Marisa’s in there telling me that I’m a superstar because I can give this gift of breast milk to babies, and she’s there cheering me on and making me feel like I couldn’t be less of a failure. To have that type of support was just incredible.”

group portait
From left: Dr. David Park, nurse Laura Karwoski, Acelleron’s Jan Ferraro, lactation consultant Marisa Merlo, former patient Sarah Reitsma, nurse manager Lina Godfrey, and Dr. Chris Morosky celebrate the presentation of the Acelleron Community Care Award to Merlo Aug. 10 in UConn John Dempsey Hospital’s labor and delivery unit. 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 an awful situation was made infinitely better because of her care. She will truly be the brightest light for all the patients she supports and cares for. She cared in such a deeply personal and empathetic way. She hugged me. I can’t tell you what that meant.”

Merlo found out in June she was named the award winner, but was not aware that nurse manager Lina Godfrey had arranged to have Reitsma and Ferraro come to the labor and delivery unit to present it to her. When Merlo arrived and saw them, she was overcome with emotion.

“We embark on the profession of nursing 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 humbling honor that I will treasure forever.  There are some patients that leave a lasting mark on your heart.  Sarah is that patient for me.  Caring for Sarah was heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time.  Supporting her through her difficult journey was a privilege and an honor.  I consider myself lucky to have crossed her path.  She is truly inspiring.”

Breast milk is incredibly good for babies and it can be lifesaving for premature babies in the NICU as their guts are too immature to process formula. In fact, NICU babies depend on donated breast milk to survive and bridge them over until their own mother’s milk comes in.

Learn more about UConn Health’s milk depot, Connecticut’s first and only hospital-based milk depot for breast milk donations.