BUFFALO, NY-- For 45 years, Donna Alessi has been a familiar face at the Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo.
When the new Oishei Children’s Hospital officially opens on Friday, November 10th, she’ll be an important piece in settling everyone in to their first day at their new home.
This isn’t her first rodeo; she’s been working for Children’s since 1972.
“My mom told me she wanted me to be a nurse, or I would have to go to an all girls high school, so it was 'Okay I'll be a nurse,’” Alessi laughs. “I don't regret it at all."
After getting her LPN license in high school, she applied to Children’s, where the only available position was in the NICU.
“We had the interview and she said ‘When can you start?’ And I said 'As soon as possible.' She goes 'Okay, be back on Monday,’” says Alessi.
As a young nurse in the early 70s, Alessi says she never wanted to be a manager, and she never wanted to be a doctor; she found her niche right away, caring for ill or premature infants.
"Being young and walking into the unit, you're thinking 'Oh my God, this is an intensive care, am I going to be able to do it?' All the staff were so nice and friendly and wanted to teach you,” Alessi says. "It felt good. It felt where I belonged in my heart. So I didn't leave.”
Alessi has literally seen the industry evolve across her 4+ decades at Children’s: babies who were given almost no hope in her formative years can now receive medicines or treatments that can help them lead a normal life.
She can even remember what it was like gavage feeding newborn babies, a process to help force feed babies that suffer from complications with feeding themselves.
When she first started, Alessi would use a feeding tube that needed to be changed every 3 hours; now, she says, the feeding tube can be left in for up to 7 days, and will help vent air from their stomachs at the same time.
“I think about what we did years ago and I look at now and what we save, it's a miracle,” Alessi says.
She’s also amassed her fair share of emotional stories, both good and bad.
With pinpoint accuracy, she can recall a little boy she cared for 43 years ago, whose mother passed away from a brain aneurism; several years ago, Alessi attended that same boy’s wedding.
Another story she recalls, a pair of twin sisters, both very sick; both were able to go home, but one died two weeks later.
She still carries it as one of her greatest heartaches, but it reminds her to never lose her emotions.
"I put my heart and soul into my job, just like I do with my family,” she says. "I have compassion for people, and I think that's really important."
Oishei Children’s Hospital will bring a new set of challenges, but Alessi can already see some of the most important improvements their new hospital will have.
For one thing, she says, added privacy for babies and their families could substantially help babies recover in their new, individual rooms.
"This is where I will end my career, is in this beautiful free-standing children's hospital, that is awesome for Buffalo,” says Alessi.
But before she and her colleagues begin their newest chapter at Oishei, Alessi will be the one to turn the lights off at the old hospital location once their move is complete.
She will be joined by her work family, many of whom have put in decades of their own lives to serve Buffalo’s smallest, most-needy patients; the gravity of that final moment is not lost on her.
"I jokingly said 'You know what? I want to shut the lights off, I've been here 45 years, I think I'm the oldest.' And they're like 'Absolutely. No problem. Of course you will,’” Alessi says, with another tear in her eye. “So, well deserved."