Caring for others is a family affair for these nurses

Kelly Hopkins’ passion for her career inspired her daughters to join her in nursing.
Kaitlyn Hopkins, left, her sister Lilyann Hopkins and mom Kelly Hopkins share a passion for nursing. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)
Kaitlyn Hopkins, left, her sister Lilyann Hopkins and mom Kelly Hopkins share a passion for nursing. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Kelly Hopkins remembers the magic she felt the first time she saw a newborn baby. She was a small child, accompanying her physician father while he made weekend rounds at Columbia Hospital in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

“He would drop me off at the nursery window where I would observe the babies, and I thought they were a miracle,” says Hopkins, BSN, RN, a clinical nurse III in the neonatal intensive care unit at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center. “I loved them; each one was different, and I could see it. I knew that’s what I wanted to do, and I told my dad, ‘One day I’m gonna work there.’ ”

It was no surprise, then, that Hopkins’ first job out of school was in the Mother/Baby (Postpartum) department at that same Wisconsin hospital where her father worked and where she had been born.

Since then, she has devoted her career to caring for infants and their parents, including work as a clinical nurse educator and a lactation consultant at Columbus Hospital in Chicago and in a pediatric office in New York. Hopkins has worked in the neonatal unit at UCLA Health for nearly 12 years.

Her daughters, Kaitlyn, 26, and Lilyann, 24, also are nurses.

Across generations

Growing up with a father who was a doctor and a mother who was a dietician, dinnertime discussions for Kelly Hopkins invariably turned to health care or the latest medical research. So, it was natural that she and two of her five brothers chose health care as a profession. 

It was the same with Kaitlyn and Lilyann, who, as children, listened attentively to their mother’s stories about the infants on her unit, Hopkins says. Both girls were enthusiastic about helping their mom with her latest projects – they knitted preemie caps for the newborns, helped make posters for her presentations and collected seashells, used for pastoral care on neonatal units.

“They’ve seen that I’ve always enjoyed what I do and have a passion and get excited about things,” Kelly Hopkins says. “Even just talking about things, I would educate them inadvertently about what we used to do and how science has helped us get to where we are today.”

Solidifying career choices

After high school, Kaitlyn and Lilyann volunteered as care extenders at UCLA Health, where they assisted the nurses by refilling supplies and helping care for patients’ personal needs. For Lilyann Hopkins, who volunteered on the pediatric oncology unit and in the cardiac catheterization lab, the work cemented her desire to be a nurse.

“Before that, I didn’t know my mom in a professional capacity,” she says. “Seeing my mom do her thing, it was like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool. I want to be like her one day.’ ”

Kaitlyn Hopkins, now a travel nurse on the medical-surgical/telemetry unit, says helping her mom with projects at an early age created a foundation for a career in nursing.

“I feel my mom helped solidify our interest in helping people. … I liked learning from her, and helping her do her presentations shaped me into wanting to help people when I got older,” she says.

The sisters agree their mom is a fantastic role model, personally and professionally.

“My mom always goes above and beyond whenever someone needs help – if somebody needs diapers and can’t afford them, she steps in. For baby showers, she would be the person who would take out half the registry. Every birthday, every holiday, she was always the one bringing baked goods. She always makes sure everyone knows she cares,” Kaitlyn says.

Passion for innovation

Through the years, Kelly Hopkins’ passion for her work has only intensified. As the developmental care chair of the Clinical Nurse Committee at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center, she revels in taking on challenging projects that enhance the lives of her tiny patients and their families.

One recent project improved the process of using fluidized positioning devices to help ventilate premature babies while on their abdomen. As a result, infants have experienced improved oxygenation, which has led to a decrease in the need for intubation.

“With the UVC lines, we don’t want the infants on their bellies, but with this device, I could create a trough – no touching, no pressure – and still get all the benefits, and we can ventilate better,” Hopkins explains.

“So, the babies are contained in this cocoon on their stomach, with room to see their central lines and oxygen source by creating troughs, sleeping comfortably in the best position to promote ease of ventilation. They’re less agitated, use less oxygen and ventilate better. They just needed time to push out the fluid in a calm relaxing manner.”

Award-winning care

Hopkins’ contributions have not gone unnoticed. Recently, she was one of 30 nurses – 10 from UCLA Health – to be honored by the Simms/Mann Family Foundation’s Off the Chart program, which recognizes nurses for outstanding care with a $10,000 gift.  

By the program’s design, recipients embody “a bias toward action, capacity for self-direction, originality and creative instincts, courageous and bold thinking, and the potential to achieve even more.”

The nomination, by a committee of her peers, came as a surprise to Hopkins.

“I thought, who me?” she says. “I don’t see myself as somebody special; I see myself as part of a team. I was surprised and then so grateful that they thought that of me. I was just in shock. I think of the people I admire, and why not them?”

The honor didn’t come as a surprise to Hopkins’ daughters.

“She always goes the extra mile for an individual patient, and then for the whole unit as well,” says Lilyann Hopkins, who graduated in May from Cal State Los Angeles, recently passed her state licensure exam, and is looking to enter a new grad nursing program. “She shares her ideas or shares the ways she does things. Her success means other peoples’ success, which means better care for the patient.”

A special touch

Kelly Hopkins says she’s delighted both her daughters were drawn to nursing.

“I am so proud when I look at them and think, ‘You are a nurse. You think about how you could make this person’s day better.’ It’s just innate in them. This is what makes them feel happy, feel useful and feel good. They brighten when they help others,” she says.

“This is what being a nurse is – truly delving into how I can make a patient’s experience better, of just letting them know that I’m thinking about them.”

Lilyann Hopkins says seeing her mother’s devotion to others inspires her to be a better nurse.

“She has a very intuitive approach with people,” Lilyann says. “Even the most challenging patients, she has a way of talking and communicating with them that makes them feel safe and understood and heard.

“Nursing is an art form; you need to think critically and have a special touch with people, and she has that unique way of touching others. It’s amazing, and she’s so good at what she does.”

Jennifer Karmarkar is the author of this article.

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