New England Newborn Screening lab technician honored as Unsung Heroine for helping save baby’s life

June 18, 2015

Melody Rush, a lab technician in UMass Medical School’s New England Newborn Screening Program, was honored as an Unsung Heroine in a packed Statehouse ceremony June 17 for braving a blizzard to pick up a newborn baby’s blood sample and helping save her life.

The Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women recognized Rush as an Unsung Heroine during its annual celebration of women who make outstanding contributions to an organization or community. The Great Hall of Flags at the Statehouse was crowded with more than 100 people who came from across the state to celebrate this year's Unsung Heroines, who are chosen by Massachusetts legislators.

"It was humbling to be in the presence of so many women who have done so much good in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," Rush said after the ceremony.

"We have in front of us incredible women to be honored ... You have given your time and your energy and it is with great enthusiasm we recognize you," Victoria A. Budson, chair of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, told the honorees. "I hope that each of you treasure this day not because it's a day you are recognized, but that you recognize the impact you have had."

“In the midst of an unprecedented winter which brought our public transportation system to a halt and kept many of us home from work, Melody Rush was braving the snow to do what she does each and every day – ensure that newborn babies get lifesaving screenings necessary to detect and treat rare diseases,” the letter nominating Rush for the honor said. “If it wasn’t for Melody’s efforts, one baby, who tested positive for a rare genetic disorder called galactosemia, may not be with us today.”

Rush was one of several on the newborn screening team who took to the roads and public transportation in the aftermath of a record-breaking snowstorm in January to pick up newborn babies’ blood samples when the severe conditions sidelined the delivery service. They collected samples from 25 hospitals in Eastern Massachusetts and delivered them to the lab in Jamaica Plain. One of the samples Rush picked up was from Juliana Salvi, whose genetic disorder prevents her body from properly metabolizing galactose, a sugar found in all milk and milk-based formulas. The disorder can cause permanent brain damage or death if not detected within the first days of life.

Juliana, now nearly 5 months old, was sent home with what her parents, Charlene and Mike Salvi, thought was a severe case of jaundice. The newborn screening tests on her blood specimen detected her disorder, and her parents were notified to immediately get her to a hospital for treatment.

The story of the newborn screening staff’s yeoman efforts during the blizzard has been widely reported in the news media, including WCVB-TV, WHDH-TV, ABC News, Yahoo! News, and Woman’s Day. Social media further increased awareness of the story, which became popular on Twitter, as highlighted in this Storify.

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst, said during the ceremony that the Unsung Heroines are to be credited with strengthening Massachusetts communities. "As a commonwealth together we build communities. Together we form a community of caring people who are there to support each other," Rosenberg said.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, D-Winthrop, also praised the women for improving their communities. "You are remarkable women who are enriching our communities ... Your efforts make Massachusetts a better place," DeLeo said.

The Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women describes Unsung Heroines as women who make a difference.

“They are the women who use their time, talent and enthusiasm to enrich the lives of others and make a difference in their neighborhoods, cities and towns. They are mentors, volunteers and innovators who do what needs to be done without expectations of recognition or gratitude. These women are the glue that keeps a community together and every community is better because of their contribution,” the commission said.

The event was followed on social media, as shown in this Storify.

UMass Medical School’s Commonwealth Medicine division, on behalf of the Department of Public Health, has operated the Massachusetts newborn screening program since 1997. The lab performs metabolic and genetic screening for nearly every one of the approximately 75,000 babies born in Massachusetts annually.

UMass Medical School’s New England Newborn Screening Program also runs newborn screening for Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

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