Student Spotlight

‘She’s in our lives forever’: WMed student’s kindness and comfort during difficult labor and surgery forges lifelong connection with Kalamazoo mother 
BrieLynn Sturm
Third-year student Katie Jones, center, is pictured with BrieLynn Sturm and Sturm's son, Jack.

When the contractions began late on the night of July 13 last year, BrieLynn Sturm had a clear birth plan detailing how she and her husband would welcome their first child into the world.

She wanted the birth to be a natural process, even entertaining the idea of a home birth; however, a hospital birth was planned to welcome baby Jack and ease the worries of family members. When it came time to give birth, she wanted as few people in the room as possible and she asked that medical students not be allowed to observe.

In the end, nothing would go as Sturm had planned.

By the morning of July 14, she was admitted to Bronson Methodist Hospital and, after laboring naturally for 25 hours, she agreed to receive Pitocin to help her labor progress. Instead, the medicine brought on intense four-minute contractions that led to Sturm agreeing to receive an epidural.

Even with the interventions, Sturm, 34, said her labor stalled. Of even greater concern was that Jack’s heart rate began to drop, prompting Sturm to opt for a C-section. She was in tears, so distressed that she became sick as her care team wheeled her to an operating room.

“By then, that was hour 30-something of my labor and I was emotionally a mess,” Sturm said. “Nothing, at all, had gone the way that I wanted … On the way to the operating room I threw up and out of nowhere this little angel heard me and made sure there was something for me to use.”

As it turned out, that angel was Katie Jones, a third-year student at WMed, who noticed Sturm was feeling sick and quickly handed a bucket to Sturm’s husband, Rob, as they headed to the operating room.

Once they were in the operating room, Sturm said she continued to cry as she waited for her husband and their doula, Kama, to join her the room. 

Jones was in the operating room too and kept a close eye on Sturm as other members of the medical team focused on prepping her for surgery. Jones said she did her best to stay out of sight, aware of Sturm’s wishes that medical students not be allowed to observe. But Jones said she also wanted to help and didn’t like seeing Sturm so upset.

“I just couldn’t stand to see someone so terrified and that was the moment I realized that she clearly needed someone,” Jones said. “So, I took my gloves off and went up to hold her hand.” 

BrieLynn Sturm
Katie and Jack, along with Jack's mother, BrieLynn Sturm, got a chance to hang out recently at the W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus.

In the midst of the chaos, Sturm said Jones’ actions were exactly what she needed. She recalled how Jones was wearing a mask at that time but the look in Jones’ eyes was comforting and she could tell Jones was smiling at her beneath the mask.

“There was a halo over her and she had this reassuring smile that everything was going to be OK,” Sturm said. “I saw “STUDENT” on her name tag and I didn’t even care. More than any other team member in the room, she put me at ease.

“I don’t think I can explain how much her being with me made a difference,” Sturm added, fighting back tears.

Even with the comfort and reassurance that Jones’ presence provided Sturm, the ordeal for her and her family was far from over. Shortly after his birth, Jack was taken to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Bronson after his glucose levels fell to dangerously low levels.

Sturm’s husband, Rob, accompanied Jack to the NICU and Sturm – still processing everything that had happened with Jack’s birth – found herself alone.

And then, just like she had done in the operating room, Sturm said Jones showed up at her door to follow up with her. She came with crackers and ice in hand and, as Sturm remembers it, Jones was “a loving comfort” for her.

“We hardly even talked but I felt a loving connection and I didn’t have to prove anything to her or do anything, it was really special,” Sturm said. “She was very in tune with the small things that she could do for me those ended up being huge factors for me not feeling alone and not feeling like a failure.”

When she reflects on that day with Sturm, Jones said it was apparent to her that Sturm needed someone with her as she prepared for surgery and Jack’s birth. So, she held Sturm’s hand during the C-section, asking Sturm if she and Rob had a name chosen for their baby, aware that they wouldn’t find out the gender until Jack was born.

“At that moment, I was like, ‘She needs someone,’” Jones said.

And after Jack’s birth, Jones said she wanted to check on Sturm, recalling how her professors at WMed had told her several times that, as a medical student, she would often have the most time to spend with a patient as opposed to a resident or attending physicians.

“Professors tell us we will likely have the most time to spend with patients, to hear more of their stories and get to know them,” Jones said. “I also just wanted to see BrieLynn again and see how she was doing.”

When their time together at the hospital came to an end that day in July, Sturm was so warmed and impressed by Jones’ kindness that she sent text messages about the experience to a close family friend – Dr. Mark Loehrke, chair and associate professor in the medical school’s Department of Medicine.  

The texts from Sturm were detailed but the message they conveyed was simple – “one of your students is really changing the world.”

“I was in such a fragile state that I really needed him to know how important his students were, Katie in particular,” Sturm said. 

Dr. Loehrke said he was thrilled to hear of Jack’s birth and that BrieLynn was recuperating, and he was filled with pride that Jones played such an integral role in helping make what was a traumatic experience better for Sturm. After he received Sturm’s texts, he shared them with Jones, he said.

“I think one of the things that is universal for medical students is they don’t always feel a lot of confidence in what they’re doing and they don’t think they can have an impact,” Dr. Loehrke said recently. “And, honestly, nothing could be further from the truth. Their actions are incredibly important to the overall healthcare team and the overall well-being of our patients.

“So, when BrieLynn sent me those texts filled with absolute gratitude for what Katie had done and how important she was to BrieLynn getting through this difficult time, I felt like Katie needed to hear that and it’s a real example of how important a medical student’s presence can be to a patient,” Dr. Loehrke added.

Jones said the text messages from Dr. Loehrke served as a tangible reminder that her pursuit of a career in medicine is worth it, that she is right where she is supposed to be.

“Patient interactions can be rewarding but something like this, it made my day and then when Dr. Loehrke texted me a few days later that I made a huge difference in someone’s life, it was so rewarding,” Jones said, fighting back tears. “It almost felt unreal that I was able to help someone so much. It just made me feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Even more rewarding is that the experience has forged a connection between Sturm and Jones that extends well beyond that day in July. In October, the new mother and aspiring doctor met for brunch along with Jack and Dr. Loehrke. The time together gave them a chance to share a meal together and relive and retell their perspectives from that day at Bronson.

“She’s in our lives forever,” Sturm said of Jones. “I feel very grateful.”