NICU nurse honored for massive impact on tiny patients

Caregiving runs in Debra Ruff's family. The Carle nurse is one of 15 siblings, including eight sisters, five of whom work in nursing.

Perhaps the one thing in Ruff’s life bigger than her family is her heart for Carle’s tiniest patients. Ruff has worked for nine years as a nurse in Carle’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), doing everything from neo-natal transport as a flight nurse to training the next generation of NICU nurses as a preceptor.

Now, her near decade of service is receiving recognition.

This week, Ruff, RNC-NIC, BSN, became the first nurse to receive the local March of Dimes Nurse of the Year Award. The March of Dimes seeks to raise awareness about and find the causes of premature births.

“I’m honored and humbled,” Ruff said. “I’m very appreciative of the fact that someone is recognizing my work.” 

March of Dimes development specialist Peggy Bush said her organization loves honoring outstanding nurses.

“These nurses are one of the first people patients come into contact with in the pregnancy process,” she said. “We want to recognize them and have never done so on the local level before.”

Ruff does her job for far more than recognition, though. The most rewarding aspect of her work? Her answer is simple.

“The babies and their families. It’s amazing how strong these NICU babies are, from the 1-pound micro preemies all the way up to the full-term babies. They have such a strong will to survive, despite the circumstances and hurdles they face. I am fortunate to witness miracles happen every day.

“And the families trust you to care for their baby,” Ruff continued. “Nobody expects to be in the NICU. When it does happen, it rocks their world. We get to help families connect, understand and be involved as they work through their conflicting feelings of joy and fear of having their precious baby in the NICU."

It’s all very emotional, to say the least.

“Our job is to help them remain calm and get through it. In the NICU, we’re on the frontlines. It can be so stressful and yet so joyous,” Ruff said.

NICU supervisor Theresa Green, BSN, CPN, cites Ruff’s presence as invaluable in their fast-paced environment.

“She never stops moving. She’s always looking for how to make someone’s day better,” Green said, adding Ruff is known for bringing homemade baked goodies to share with her coworkers.

“She has an exceptional work ethic, and she always has a smile on her face. Whatever needs to be done, she does it.”

Like in her life outside of work, what keeps Ruff going is the people.

“The best moments of my day are when a parent says ‘thank you’ and how much they appreciate you. They’ll often give you hugs and want to take a picture with you,” Ruff said.

“Moments like that make it all worth it.”