From Patients to Nurses
By Alex Cantatore
But after chance landed Brenda Goates in the NICU as a patient, she did everything she could to come back — as a nurse. And now, more than 20 years later, her twin daughters hope to soon work alongside their mother in the same unit that saved their lives.
“I felt very strongly that I needed to give back to the community what had been given to me,” Brenda said.
Brenda met her husband, Larry Goates, when she was just 16. They were high school sweethearts, engaged at 18 and married soon thereafter — though they waited five years to have children.
Brenda became pregnant on May 24, 1991. She was due on Feb. 14, 1992.
She delivered her twins on Nov. 9, 1991, just five months and 16 days into her pregnancy, and more than three months before her due date.
Brenda’s labor started during a Lamaze class, 20 weeks into her pregnancy. She didn’t feel well, but she didn’t want to bother the instructor. Larry convinced her to say something.
Brenda was rushed into emergency care. She stayed in the hospital for weeks trying to hold off the labor, but eventually an emergency cesarean section was unavoidable.
Her twins girls, Christina and Tiffany, weighed just 2 pounds when they were born. They were just 14 inches long. “Micro premies,” Brenda says they were called.
Christina and Tiffany stayed in the NICU for nearly five months. And nearly every day, Brenda and Larry were there to be with their children.
Brenda befriended the nurses who cared for her daughters, and fell in love with their work. When her twins were finally healthy and she left the NICU for what would have been the last time, she stopped to speak to Dr. Frederick Murphy on the way out.
“I told him, when they were discharging Tiffany, ‘I’m going to be back,’” Brenda said.
The doctors and nurses hear it all the time, Brenda says. A stay in the NICU is a traumatic experience, and people often feel a need to give back.
Before the NICU, Brenda was successful in her career. She managed a Payless Shoe Store, after working her way up from the very bottom. She was even voted Manager of the Year one year, the kind of leader who was trusted to open new stores.
But Brenda Goates was ready to throw all that away to pursue her dream of working in the NICU.
“It’s because of these two,” Brenda says, gesturing to her daughters. “I needed that unit to be here.”
“She always had big stacks of books on the table, but she never opened them until we were asleep,” Tiffany said.
She’d stay up late to study, or get up early. Nap times weren’t rest time — they were a chance to study.
When the twins were 9, Brenda graduated from nursing school. She earned her RN — Registered Nurse — though her daughters thought those initials stood for something else.
“That mean’s you’re a Real Nurse,” Tiffany said.
Degree in hand, Brenda went back to Doctors Medical Center’s NICU.
“I came back and told Dr. Murphy, ‘Okay, here’s my license,” Brenda said.
Before long, Brenda was back in the NICU for good, helping parents deal with the experience that she herself went through.
So many parents find themselves shell shocked, Brenda says. Their entire lives are turned upsides down. Their babies are struggling to live, every second of every day.
“That’s frightening,” Brenda says.
But as a nurse, Brenda can offer a rare, inside perspective. It can help calm parents to let them know that if Brenda’s babies made it, so can theirs.
The call to nursing runs strong in the Goates family. When Christina and Tiffany were just five years old, as they crossed the stage at Kindergarten graduation, both were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Some classmates said they would be policemen, firefighters. One boy even said he’d be Spiderman.
The twins both said “Nurse.”
The proclamation didn’t really surprise Brenda. Her daughters were always taking care of things, bringing home birds with broken wings and nursing them back to health.
“It’s in their genetic makeup,” Brenda said.
Like their mother, the twins’ journey to nursing hasn’t been easy.
Larry was diagnosed with cancer while the girls were in high school. He fought for years, even undergoing a bone marrow transplant. Larry made it to their graduation and took the kids on a trip to celebrate, but passed soon thereafter.
And a year after Larry passed, Brenda fought her own battle with cancer. After 16 rounds of chemo, and 6 weeks of daily radiation, she had no hair and could barely stand. But Brenda but made it to Tiffany’s wedding, and she’s back working in the NICU today.
The twins half-joke that they should have their degrees by now, but Brenda notes that most young adults don’t have to deal with two parents fighting cancer.
Both Tiffany and Christina are taking their nursing school pre-requisites at Modesto Junior College now. One day, they hope to work in the NICU themselves, telling worried parents how they survived.
“I think it’ll be cool to see how a parent reacts,” Tiffany said. “If I made it in ’91, their kid can do it as well.”
There’s a common thread in the Goates’ stories. That if they can do it, anyone can.
“There’s…” Tiffany trails off. “Hope,” Christina says. “Such hope,” Brenda says.