Chaplain Kat Walks with Parents in the NICU

When parents unexpectedly find themselves with a child in the hospital, religion is often the first place they look for guidance. For others, however, it’s the last resort.

Regardless of religious beliefs, parents and families find an advocate and place of solace in Reverend Kat Kowalski, the first full-time pediatric chaplain in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

“My religion is love and kindness,” says Chaplain Kat, as she is called by families in the NICU.

What started as a part-time position in 2013 has since turned into a 24/7 position thanks to recognition of the great need for her services by both staff members and leadership in the division of neonatology.

“This is wonderful news for all of our patients and their families, and all of us who help care for them,” says pediatrician Nancy Hutton, medical director of the Harriet Lane Compassionate Care program. “Also, this is Johns Hopkins innovation at its best—identifying a critical need, creating an individualized response, piloting its effectiveness and implementing action for sustained impact.”

In her role, Kat provides spiritual and emotional guidance to families during their stay in the NICU. During traumatic and stressful experiences, she stays with families through every step of their journeys. One of the central aspects of her job is assisting families in creating a birth plan. When families face unforeseen circumstances before or during the birth of their child, they are often forced to make a hasty decision.

“Planning is so important because families often need to make decisions swiftly, and discussing their options beforehand eases the decision-making,” says Kat, who is helping to spearhead a perinatal palliative care program at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

Although she is not a clinician, in her role Chaplain Kat is able to translate medical information to families in a way they can understand. Her unique understanding of situations allows her to speak to previous experiences and ask questions the family may not know to ask.

Chaplain Kat’s goal is simple: to help families know that their child’s life was meaningful. The validation that their child was here, even if only for a brief amount of time, is something that brings comfort to many parents. She remembers well a final wish by parents to take their child to the beach, so she brought the beach to them—complete with shells and the sound of ocean waves right in their hospital room.

“The impact that one little spirit can have on a family, doctor or staff member is remarkable,” she says.

Her support does not end when the family leaves the hospital. She often communicates with them on their journeys through grief. Whether it be officiating funerals or being an open ear, Chaplain Kat’s role extends far beyond the walls of the hospital.

Although the experiences that Kat goes through may be stressful, she says it is the “resiliency of the human spirit” that inspires her.

“Helping to make horrible situations better is what keeps me going,” she says.

Interestingly, Kat’s connection to Johns Hopkins started long before she was employed here. As a child herself, she underwent the renowned “blue baby” operation, which was pioneered at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

Although the impact Chaplain Kat has on families is astounding, the position depends on philanthropy, and thus it is not permanent. Funding is needed to maintain her role in the hospital. For more information on how you can support our pediatric palliative care program, please email [email protected]. —Helen Grafton