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For half a century, she’s been the heart of the NICU

Smiling woman with short red hair, wearing blue UT Southwestern scrubs an black glasses. On white banner with-Bernadine Wafford, Health Unit Coordinator, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital, and blue Employee Recognition Program logo.

Bernadine Wafford has worked at UT Southwestern for 50 years and counting – but she has no plans to retire anytime soon. And that’s good, say her colleagues, who describe Mrs. Wafford, a Health Unit Coordinator in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, as the heart and brains of the unit.

Her many years of experience, institutional memory, and knowledge of day-to-day operations make Ms. Bernie, as her co-workers affectionately call her, the “brains” of the NICU.

“She’s been the backbone of our unit for so many years. We jokingly say, ‘Ask Ms. Bernie. She knows everything,’” says Oralenda Smith, Nurse Manager of the NICU.

Adds Assistant Nurse Manager Leah Orrick, “She’s like a computer; she knows all about the unit. In fact, I have a couple of questions for her when I see her next.”

And Mrs. Wafford is the “heart” of the unit as well because her own heart is so big.

“As our Unit Secretary, Bernadine is the first and last face our families and visitors see when entering the NICU. She always has a warm smile. She learns all their names and welcomes them as if they are old, familiar friends. I get so many compliments from our mothers who appreciate Bernadine’s calm and warm demeanor. Her loyalty to UT Southwestern and its community is unmatched,” Ms. Smith says.

Mrs. Wafford started working in housekeeping shortly before her 19th birthday. She then became a unit tech and, ultimately, a Health Unit Coordinator in the NICU, a job she has held for close to 40 years.

Her duties include preparing admissions and discharges, ensuring the unit has the supplies it needs, and performing other clerical tasks. But arguably the most important part of her job is welcoming families to the unit where their sick newborns are cared for by UT Southwestern physicians and nurses.

“I reassure the parents. I always tell them we have the best doctors and nurses here because the parents worry about their little ones,” Mrs. Wafford says.

It’s a joyous occasion when a NICU patient is discharged, and one of Mrs. Wafford’s favorite tasks is taking the babies down to the hospital entrance in a stroller. “I wait for the parents and watch them put the baby in the car seat. We say our goodbyes and wish them well,” she says.

So calm and soothing is she in all her tasks that she has been honored with the Diana and Richard C. Strauss Service Excellence Award, which recognizes employees who exemplify excellent care and service, professionalism, a positive attitude, dedication to teamwork, dependability, enthusiasm, and compassion for patients, guests, and co-workers.

When she’s not at the hospital, Mrs. Wafford is usually spending time with her family, which includes husband Gregory, daughter Shuniqua, sons Gregory and Kevin, and two granddaughters.

Once a year, the NICU hosts a reunion for the babies and their families. Mrs. Wafford loves the reunions and seeing how the babies have grown. Last year, however, she wasn’t able to attend the reunion for a wonderful reason: Her husband surprised her with a trip to Israel.

“I always said I would love to go to the Holy Land. It was just a dream,” she says.

The group she was with visited the tomb where Jesus was buried, were rebaptized in the Jordan River, and swam in the Dead Sea. “I don’t know how to swim, but I found out that you float in salt water and you have to get up like you are sitting up. That was quite an experience,” she says.

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