Mother’s Day treat: Moms, daughters work together in NICU




Longtime nurses Stacia Nickell and Susie McSwain watch with pride as their daughters, Murphy Nickell and Jenna McSwain, follow in their footsteps.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer,

They are “ride or die” friends. Veteran nurses on the NICU.

They had babies three weeks apart a quarter century ago.

Those babies had playdates together. Went to high school together.

And now those same babies are nurses alongside their moms.

The call to be a nurse at Riley Children’s Health is strong, especially when you’ve grown up hearing about it from someone in your family.

On this Mother’s Day, Stacia Nickell and Susie McSwain – each with more than three decades of nursing on the neonatal intensive care unit – watch with pride as their daughters, Murphy Nickell and Jenna McSwain, follow in their footsteps.

“I love being able to work together when we get the chance,” Susie said, with her daughter sitting by her side. “We may not get the chance to really talk while we’re working, but we ride in together and ride home together, and I get the chance to hear her perspective on things and how her day went. I love seeing her love what I love.”

At that last comment, Jenna wipes away tears. A nurse on the unit for three years, she is about to become a first-time mom herself.

“Blame it on the hormones,” Susie teases her daughter.

But Stacia says that emotional response comes naturally to Jenna, and it helps her connect with her patients and families.

“That comes from watching you, sister,” she says to Susie, who is well-known for asking parents of babies in her care how they met and fell in love. “People will tell her anything.”

“I can’t help it, I love people,” Susie laughs.

“They know you care,” Stacia adds.


The two older women joined the Riley NICU team within a year of each other in the late ‘80s and later worked together in the old Module 3, which was the surgical module.

“We took care of the sickest babies on the unit,” Stacia said. “We got close through teamwork, and we had kids at the same time. It was great. We are ride or die friends.”

They even vacation together, though never with the girls, Susie laughed.

“There are things they can’t know!”

Their trips, whether to the mountains or the beach, are legendary around the unit because the pair delight in sending photos of their adventures.

“We go on those trips to unwind and not have to be responsible,” Stacia said.

Jenna gets it.

“Stacia allows my mom to be a different person – a different part of her authentic self,” the younger nurse said. “I think having somebody who lets you be that free with yourself ….”

Her voice trails off as Susie wraps her in a hug.

“I get to be Susie when I’m with Stacia,” Susie explains. “I’m not mom, I’m not a wife, I’m not a nurse. I’m just me.”

As many mothers can attest, it’s easy to lose bits and pieces of yourself along the way.

“She pulls that part of me back out,” Susie says of her friend.

“When I get with her, it allows me to get back to my true self, too,” Stacia adds, remembering a time on a hike when she crouched down on a ledge on a mountainside to make it look like she was falling.

“Susie was having a heart attack and yelling at me to get up, and I’m yelling at her to take a picture. It’s a gift we have for each other that we can do that. We look forward to our trips.”


Murphy Nickell loves hearing stories like that. She worked in the NICU as a unit secretary for three years, before joining her mom as a nurse there a year ago.

“Growing up, I watched my mom go through many different phases during her nursing career. From bedside care, to management, shift coordinator, managing the OR and NICU move over to the Simon Family Tower,” Murphy said.

Seeing what she describes as her mom’s courage and selflessness has humbled her, she said, and makes her appreciate her even more.

“I remember growing up and waiting for her to come home, only for my siblings and me to bombard her with our needs and questions,” Murphy said. “Now that I am a nurse, I wonder how she did it for so many years. When I come home from work, I am ready to relax and couldn’t imagine four kids needing me the minute I get home.”

Both Murphy and Jenna say that working alongside their moms, even if they don’t interact during a shift, fills them with pride.

“One of the things I like about working with my mom is that, while we get to know throughout our lives that they’re proud of us for different reasons, it’s fun to be proud of who they are at work and know that’s how we got here,” Jenna said.

At that, Susie reaches out to grab her daughter’s hand, saying, “Now, you’re gonna make me cry.”

That pride goes both ways, she says.

“What really touches me is when a doctor, another nurse or anyone we work with seeks me out to tell me how special Jenna is or what a great nurse she is,” Susie said. “It's like a Happy Mother’s Day every time.”

And it doesn’t stop with Jenna. Susie’s bonus daughter, Heather Dornbusch, is a registered nurse in the cardiovascular intensive care unit at Riley.

“She says she’s a nurse because of me,” Susie says with pride. “That’s what she tells me.”


Apart from the pride that extends from mother to daughter and back again, they learn from one another as well.

Just like Susie and Jenna, when Stacia and Murphy work the same days, they ride in together as well, and it’s time they treasure.

“Sometimes that 20-minute drive is my favorite part of my day,” Murphy said.

Stacia, a shift coordinator, is challenged to think differently when Murphy asks questions like, “why are we doing this” or “why can’t we do that?”

“When I started, we worked in big rooms together where we could see each other, and it was easier to make a connection and compare notes,” Stacia said. “Now they’re in linear hallways (and private rooms), and it’s harder to get information. Looking at it from her perspective instead of my normal 35-year lens is good.”

“It’s never-ending learning with this job,” Susie agrees. “We sometimes get a diagnosis that even after 35 years is new to us. Sometimes Jenna will be here on a day when a baby like that comes in and she will ask the questions and get educated and then she’ll tell me something I never knew. And let’s face it, their brains are so much younger than ours,” she says, triggering another round of laughter from the group.

Jenna says being able to ask her mom questions has helped her learn more than just technical skills or communication skills.

“As new nurses, you get a lot of the ‘how’ when you start, but the ‘why’ comes later,” she said. “Why do we use a certain medication over another, or why do we do certain interventions for babies. I got a little bit of the ‘why’ before my brain was necessarily trying to find it because I had the resources.”


Both moms made it a point not to hover when their daughters started working as nurses on the unit. They wanted their girls to grow and stand on their own.

“I wanted her to be her own person,” Susie said.

“I wanted people to say Jenna and Murphy are good nurses,” Stacia agreed. “I wanted them to stand on their own merit, and I think they both have.”

Murphy, who was called away during our interview to care for a patient, later emailed to talk about what her mom means to her and to thank her for raising her to be independent.

“I know that without her I would not be the woman I am today,” she said. “I think it’s very special to be able to work with my mom because she is able to see me grow as a person and a nurse. I love her and hope she knows how much I appreciate all that she has done for me to help me be successful in life.”

Jenna watched and learned from her own mom, not just about nursing as a career, but as a passion.

“I just loved when she would come home and you could tell she loved what she was doing.”

Even on the hard days.

“I wanted to love what I did, too,” Jenna said.

And she does.

“It’s been everything I thought it would be.”

Susie recalls a moment when Jenna told her, “I just want to be as good as you one day.”

“And I said, ‘No, you want to be better, and you will be.’ You’re on your way.”

(Three other mother-daughter nurse teams on the Riley Heart Center were featured on “Today with Hoda & Jenna” last week.)

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist,