Miami VA Healthcare System
Pregnant Veterans find support at VA baby shower
Navy Veteran Patricia Estivene was feeling stressed, frustrated and overwhelmed. On June 20, she found out she was pregnant with her first child, but she didn’t know how or where to begin planning for her baby, hadn’t scheduled any prenatal appointments or started learning about becoming a new mother. Estivene decided to go to the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center in Miami for help.
When Estivene arrived, she met with Michelle Zielenski, Miami VA Healthcare System’s Women Veterans Program manager, and Deborah Toler, Miami VA maternity coordinator. Toler assured Estivene everything was going to be fine, scheduled her an initial prenatal appointment, provided educational books and reading materials, and talked about the programs and services available for women—before, during and after pregnancy—at the Miami VA Women Veterans Clinic.
Estivene was relieved. She was about to leave the medical center, when Toler reminded her about the first baby shower for expecting Veterans at the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center the following day.
“I was like, baby shower? At the VA? Is this a trick?,” Estivene said. “I thought, maybe they want to talk to us about something else? I wasn’t sure if I was going to this baby shower.”
Estivene eventually gave in and decided she would go. After all, she hadn’t yet celebrated her pregnancy and was feeling nervous about planning a baby shower of her own.
“I think I’m overly excited and worried at the same time,” Estivene said. “I feel like if I celebrate too soon, you know, it may jinx it. Everyone says the joy, the joy, but no one warned me about the fear and worry.”
When Estivene arrived at the medical center the following morning, she was surprised. There were balloons, baby clothes, toiletries, diapers, toys, strollers, car seats, cribs and other items—all donated by Miami VA employees and community organizations. Smiling people were greeting and talking with other pregnant Veterans and their families as they arrived.
“I was like, O.K. It’s a real baby shower,” Estivene said. “There are gifts and people happy to see us? You know, as a woman Veteran, you’re not always included, kind of like when you’re in the military. This includes us, even after we’re having babies.”
“This baby shower is to show our women Veterans that the Miami VA honors and supports them,” said Dr. Panagiota Caralis, Miami VA Women Veterans Program medical director and one of the baby shower organizers. “Many women still may not know that VA offers maternity services for Veterans. We are working on changing that.”
The Miami VA Women Veterans Program offers many routine and specialty health care services for women Veterans at all Miami VA outpatient clinics, including health examinations, breast cancer evaluations and treatments, mental health and sexual trauma referrals, breast exams, maternity care referrals, gynecologic assessments, menopausal counseling and treatment, and more. The Women Veterans Clinic also has a full-time maternity care coordinator that works and interacts with Veterans throughout their pregnancies and postpartum.
“A pregnancy can be confusing for some women—especially for first-time parents—but that’s where I come in,” Toler said. “Once we are notified about a pregnant Veteran, I coordinate the care between the providers at VA and in the community. Since I’m able to work with pregnant Veterans so closely, I can pick up on areas where they might need more help. This baby shower wouldn’t have been possible without Michelle, Dr. Caralis, and our employees and partners.”
“I got frustrated very easily and Ms. Deborah helps with my appointments and making sure that we get the right care,” Estivene said. “She’s a blessing.”
In addition to offering maternity services to women Veterans, the Miami VA also offers support for the men who have a little one on the way.
“Men also have a lot to learn before the baby arrives,” Panagiota said. “They can participate in any of our educational programs offered as part of the Women’s Health Program.”
At the baby shower, Estivene received diapers; a bag full of toiletries, clothing and toys; and even a car seat that was given to her by another Veteran she met at the shower. Afterwards, Estivene began to feel differently about her pregnancy.
“Meeting all the other mothers who are also going through the same thing I am going through was good,” she said. “You get a moment to just relax and be pregnant and talk to people. The gifts are wonderful, but knowing the community is behind you, and that you have somewhere or people willing to teach and help is good. This is my first child. I should be celebrating and not worrying so much. Maybe I will have a baby shower.”