Nurses in Virginia help deaf father overcome communication hurdle during daughter's birth

Posted at 1:30 PM, Apr 24, 2020

Parenthood can be a challenge within itself, and the pandemic isn't making things any more accessible, especially for one Virginia Beach couple.

For new parents Will and Jennifer McKendree, the coronavirus pandemic brought on a new level of anxiety.

"My perspective changed from one of being excited to bring a child into the world to one of survival and making sure we kept healthy," said Jennifer McKendree.

Their daughter, Cooper Lynn, was born on April 10. Her birth was a special moment dad Will feared he wouldn't be able to be a part of fully.

"I couldn't hear," said Will McKendree as he gestured his hand to his mouth. "They were talking; couldn't hear anything."

Will is deaf. He reads lips and uses visual cues such as hand and mouth motions, known as Cued Speech .

The masks protecting staff at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital from getting the virus made it nearly impossible to communicate with Will.

"Basic communication and getting to know our patients and bond without patients, we felt like giving another avenue where he could be part of the conversation was important," said Reagan Boomer, Sentara Princess Anne Hospital Nurse Manager.

Employees at Princess Anne Hospital went beyond their typical duties to help the new parents overcome the huge communication hurdle.

They sewed together unique masks within an hour of the McKendrees arriving at the hospital to welcome their daughter.

"This may sound weird, but I just happened to have my sewing machine at work," said Nurse Specialist Lori Holleman.

Holleman used some heavy-duty page protectors as windows in the masks so Will could see their mouths and read their lips.

When the nurses surprised the couple with the first mask, it brought Will to tears.

"I just started crying. It was very emotional," said Will. "Not many deaf people can have this type of experience with others thinking about us and our access to be able to communicate."

After a few tweaks to the first model, Will was able to communicate with the staff inside the labor room.

"It was just extraordinary for him and us that they took the time as nurses and medical professionals that are risking their lives in this pandemic just to take it a step further and work together as a team," said Jennifer.

"They were a joy. They were a joy to take care of, a joy to work with," Sentara Princess Anne Hospital Dir. of Women's Health Paige Crunk said. "They were so appreciative. We are the lucky ones."

The masks have been distributed throughout all Sentara facilities.

WTKR Antoinette DelBel's first reported this story.