Karen Sisel never endured a month, a week or even a night with a child in a neonatal intensive care unit.
The mother of two daughters, grandmother of six and now a great-grandmother never had to rely on a full-service children’s hospital like Brenner Children’s Hospital. She says she doesn’t know of friends or acquaintances who have been treated at Brenner Children’s either.
“I’ve been very blessed,” says Sisel.
She feels blessed enough to help make sure that others in the region who need the best care can receive it at Brenner Children’s. Sisel is supporting the campaign for a new neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to ensure that the tiniest and most vulnerable babies have the best chance at the best life possible.
The campaign is raising $25 million to build a new NICU with 50 private patient rooms and a more comfortable, supportive environment for families.
“Maybe it’s a mother’s instinct,” says Sisel, who has committed to give $5 millon to the NICU campaign in hopes of encouraging others to match her gift. “I just have always loved children.”
What she witnessed during a visit to the children’s hospital convinced her to give.
In spring 2015, Sisel took a tour of Brenner Children’s to learn more about the care it provides to families throughout western North Carolina and parts of neighboring states.
“I was so impressed with the staff and everybody working with these children,” she says. “I thought it was just the most wonderful place for children who need care and have to be in a hospital.”
That impression changed when she entered the NICU, where more than 10,000 babies and their families have received care for more than 20 years.
There, she saw babies fighting for their lives alongside their parents—who were alongside other families coping with their own situations in communal pods with eight babies and families per pod.
While the care provided is state-of-the- art, there is no privacy in the current NICU, and light and noise can be excessive during what may be one of the most difficult times a family can face—the average NICU stay is 21 days, and some may stay for up to a year.
“It just ate at my heart,” Sisel says in recalling the physical environment. “The parents had no place to be alone with their children. I knew if I were in their position, I would want to be alone with my husband and my child.
“That’s when I really started getting involved.”
Supporting the Community
Sisel, a native of Massachusetts enjoys being involved in her community. Her husband Dale Sisel, who died in 2014, capped a long and successful career as president and chief executive officer of R. J. Reynolds International. The Sisels lived in Texas, London and Switzerland, among other locales, while moving 17 times. After visiting 24 countries, all 50 states and five of the seven continents, Sisel has lived in Winston-Salem since 2005.
She volunteers locally with GreeNest, which helps individuals and families in need who are transitioning into sustainable housing. GreeNest provides donated items to furnish their homes and has a particular focus on helping military veterans and families with children.
She has volunteered as a tutor at Brunson Elementary School, where her daughter has worked as a teacher. She also has supported Ronald McDonald House, and she and her husband funded scholarships and faculty positions at Wake Forest University.
Like the NICU campaign, all are good causes that are close to home, Sisel says. She chose to support the NICU effort before she decided to make her support public.
“I have remained anonymous for quite some time,” she says. “I finally decided it was time to come out in the open and get people motivated.
“I will continue to give every year, but if I can get other people to match what I’m giving or even part of what I’m giving, that would be wonderful.”
She believes a new NICU at Brenner Children’s is a need just like the others she sees in her community. It promises to give families and their children a home away from home when they need it most.
“There are so many needs in our own backyard we need to take care of,” she says. “I think this NICU will be wonderful to have.”