Nursing alumna Annette Ventoza holds a plaque awarding her the March of Dimes Nurse of the Year

Annette Ventoza ’18 cares for the tiniest infants struggling to stay alive. Instead of being terrified by the fragility of the newborns in her care — preterm infants who barely weigh over one pound or babies struggling with a variety of health issues — Ventoza considers her work as a neonatal intensive care nurse at Valley Medical Center UW Medicine an extreme honor.

“It’s somebody’s baby who is here now. I feel so blessed and grateful to be able to take care of them and be their advocate because they obviously can’t talk to us to tell us what’s wrong,” Ventoza said.

“The other day, we got to put a little one skin-to-skin with its mom for the first time,” she said. “When they get bigger, we’re helping parents learn how to swaddle their babies or feed them.”

Christina Long, medical director of the NICU at Valley Medical Center/UW Medicine, said Ventoza is one of the most dedicated nurses in their unit. “Annette joined nearly every committee our unit has,” said Long, a physician and neonatologist who has worked with Ventoza for the past seven years. “Annette is the chair of the Unit Based Council, a member of the Quality Improvement Team and the Valley Extremely Preterm Program, and [she] helps the Central Line Team as well. She helped us complete projects that decreased our central line infections, decreased rates of intestinal infections, and standardized the resuscitations of our sickest babies.”

Ventoza added QR codes to resources to provide translations for families who don’t speak or read English.

For her extraordinary work, the March of Dimes organization named Ventoza “Washinton State Nurse of the Year” in the category of “Nursing Practice Excellence.”

SPU Stories spoke with Ventoza about her career and calling.

Q. How did you decide to become a nurse?

A. I grew up living with my grandparents for a bit. When I was 13, my grandma was diagnosed with leukemia. Things went downhill pretty quickly. It was about 5 months from her diagnosis to her passing.

During that time, we spent a lot of time at doctor’s appointments and just delved into the health care system.

We had a neighbor who was a nurse. I spent a ton of time with her, but it never occurred to me to think about the profession until my grandma got sick. Even though we were going through such a traumatic thing, I realized I actually enjoyed all the things I was learning.

The day my grandmother passed away, we were driving away, and I looked at my mom and said, “I’m going to be a nurse.”

When I’d say this to other people, they’d reply, “Okay, yeah. That’s your dream for now.” But I stuck to it and planned it all out.

Q. What was your path from there?

A. When I was 16 and a junior in high school, I enrolled in Running Start. I graduated from high school with my associate degree in pre-nursing. You can’t go straight into a nursing program, so I started at SPU and did a minor in psychology for a year before applying to SPU’s nursing program. I was there for three more years and then graduated with a bachelor’s degree.

Q. Did you have any favorite instructors from SPU’s nursing program?

April Morgan Roth was teaching a really early morning class on pathophysiology. I was like, “This is so early to be doing this!” But she made it fun, and I loved that class. To this day, I still love to research things. I love to dig deeper and find out how things are connected so that worked well for me.

Q. How did you decide to become an NICU nurse?

A. When you finish nursing, you have to pass the NCLEX, the licensing test to officially become a registered nurse. Most of us studied and took the test the summer after graduation.

I was interviewing all over during that time. Most people don’t know what specialty they want to do. We just do a couple of interviews to see what we get. We’ve been exposed to a few different specialties, so sometimes you just start somewhere and see if it’s what you really want to do.

The day I took the licensure test, I got a voicemail from the NICU manager at Valley Medical asking if I was interested in working there. I was panicking because you have to wait two days to find out if you passed or failed. If you fail the test, you cannot legally work as a registered nurse. It was a high-stress, high-stakes time. Then, two days later, I found out I passed.

I called the manager and asked if she was still looking for interview candidates and ended up meeting with them, and they offered me the job. I think it was a Wednesday, and the residency for the new nurses started the next Monday.

I feel like a lot of people pick nursing, but I seriously feel like nursing picked me, and I think NICU nursing picked me. It’s the perfect fit!

Q. You worked as a registered nurse for a couple of years before COVID shut down the world in 2020. How did the pandemic affect your work as a NICU nurse?

A. We didn’t see a lot of babies getting COVID, but the moms caught it. If the moms were sick, they couldn’t come into the NICU. It was causing more separation of mothers from babies, and we always fought hard against separating moms and babies.

COVID was causing delays for families to be able to meet their babies, so we were zooming with families while we cared for their infants, but COVID really put a wrench in things and made things so much more difficult.

We were always in full isolation gear that you put on upon entry and then took off when you exited. If a patient alarm went off, we’d have to put all the stuff back on and go in again to check the monitors. Sometimes you would just stay in there because it was easier than taking it all off and coming out and going back.

Nurses and families had to wear face masks, so babies weren’t able to see faces and smiles, and they were losing out on this interaction.

Initially, everything from masks to gloves to gowns was on backorder or out of stock. We would show up and ask, “What do we not have enough of today?” It was happening everywhere.

We’ve had a lot of nurses start after those COVID days, and they have no idea what we went through. There were some bad days, but we really rallied as a team through those.

Q. What’s the most rewarding part of being an NICU nurse?

I’m a big fan of the small things, and there are so many amazing firsts to celebrate, like when a baby finishes its whole bottle for the first time, or when parents come and they are touching and meeting their baby for the first time.

You get to be the person to help them with their first diaper, or you get to teach them how to swaddle an infant and it’s the first time they are touching and loving their child.  

I love what I do so much, even when it’s a teeny, tiny baby, and we don’t even know if they’re going to survive. We go in there and get the parents in there as much as we can. We try to build families up and help parents bond with their babies even though they’re terrified. The NICU is just such an awesome place to be.

Related articles

A soldier comforts a small child
Your Turn
From the reader Fall 2022

Nourishing Hope: Life as a pediatric oncology dietitian

Tyler Breier appears on a laptop screen
Beyond SPU
The “isms” that plague public health

Christina Hoyle | photo by Kiri Schwiethale
Class Notes
Christina Hoyle, integral in developing SPU’s Doctor of Nursing Practice program, retires