CHARLOTTE – When Lolita Bryant delivered her twin daughters prematurely in 1987, she felt happy but anxious: How well would they thrive after delivery at 29 weeks’ gestation?
Britanie and Shatoya were born 11 weeks early by emergency C-section and had to remain in the neonatal intensive care (NICU). Both babies were critically underdeveloped and could not immediately survive outside of the incubators.
“It was an emotional experience for me,” Bryant said. “After being discharged from the hospital, I was going back every day and sitting with my babies for four or five hours, then having to leave them and come home to empty cribs.”
Parental helplessness and guilt often accompany this level of separation from newborns. One in 7 mothers suffers from postpartum depression, the most common perinatal mood disorder. (Perinatal refers to the time between pregnancy and one year after birth.) But African American moms like Bryant are at greater risk. And the anxiety that overwhelms many moms of preterm babies can persist long after birth.
“A lot of times you assume that you can pray or feel better about the experience,” Bryant said. “But many new moms are not aware of the resources available, and some decide not to seek assistance from a counselor or therapist because of the stigma that exists around perinatal mood disorders.”
Bryant wants mothers and fathers to know that depression is nothing to be embarrassed about. As a new parent at 25, Bryant remembered feeling blessed to have family and loved ones provide support and assistance for her and her twin girls. She did not suffer from postpartum depression. But the experience of someone close to her inspired Bryant to study the condition and help stressed parents find care.
She facilitates a local Postpartum Support International group twice a month online, intended for parents of babies currently or formerly in the NICU. Bryant helps connect families from all over the country who are experiencing the uniquely stressful NICU environment. She provides parents with education and understanding by steering them toward local resources they don’t often know exist.
When Bryant isn’t volunteering, she’s working full-time as a patient-safety specialist at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center, and teaches as adjunct faculty in the RN-to-BSN and doctor of nursing practice programs in the School of Nursing at University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW). In May, she will celebrate 40 years of service at the hospital.
Bryant’s first day was May 23, 1983. She started as a ward clerk in the coronary care unit, but knew where she wanted to end up.
“I would look at those nurses and say, ‘One day, I’m going to do that,’” Bryant said.
And she did. She eventually became a nurse on the neuroscience unit, and later spent 26 years as a labor-and-delivery nurse. In that role Bryant ran the unit as the night-shift coordinator. She later transitioned to nursing supervisor and administrative operations officer, and also worked as a clinical-education specialist in the nursing education department, where she continues to teach basic life support.
The night shift, parenting, nursing school – it was a lot. Bryant was determined to continue her education, and once expressed how exhausted she was to the dean, Virginia Adams.
“Lolita,” Adams responded, “you don’t have time to be tired.”
Too many people depend on you, Adams said. Keep moving. “As Black women, we have to continue to show up,” she said.
Bryant took those words to heart. She spent the next several years showing up again and again, earning her bachelor’s and master’s in nursing education and joining the School of Nursing faculty. By 2020, Bryant had earned her doctorate.
“She’s the perfect role model in higher education because African Americans, particularly in Wilmington and across the nation, remain small in number at the doctoral level,” said Bettie Glenn, the former associate dean for academic affairs.
Roughly one in 20 doctorate recipients in the U.S. is Black, according to the National Science Foundation. Last year, Bryant established the Dr. Lolita B. Bryant, Abram Bishop and Family Endowed Scholarship for Diversity in Nursing to honor her great-great-grandfather. Abram Bishop owned 43 acres that UNCW took by eminent domain to expand the campus in 1959. Trask Coliseum stands on Bishop’s former homestead. The purpose of Bryant’s scholarship is to encourage people of color to pursue careers in healthcare like she did.
Leading the way in patient safety
Black women are three times likelier than white women to die from a pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Structural racism and implicit bias often create disparities in maternal care for Black families and can affect interactions between patients and their providers. As Bryant put it, “a lot more African American moms are dying in labor because the concerns they may have during and after a pregnancy are not being acknowledged or heard.”
It was during Bryant’s graduate research of postpartum depression that the emotional barriers between many moms and their nurses became clear. Black women are more likely to suffer from depress than white women after child birth, she found, with many experiencing symptoms including panic and posttraumatic stress disorder. Bryant is working to dispel the stigma often associated with perinatal mood disorders.
So how should medical professionals acknowledge new moms? When Bryant worked as a labor-delivery nurse, she put parents at ease by establishing a connection and not letting them leave the hospital confused, said Johnsie Davis, who hired Bryant first as a nurse and again as a patient-safety specialist.
“She has this nurturing in her,” Davis said. “She was able to have those honest and concrete conversations with mothers and families, helping them to ask the questions they were afraid to ask and to develop that trust.”
Bryant is still a trusted resource in the community. And after almost 40 years with the hospital, she’s just getting started.
“I have to have the best attitude that I can to try to make a difference in the lives of other people,” Bryant said.
“My mother and father always taught me to never think you’re better than anyone else, but know that you’re just as good as the next person. That’s carried me all my life.”