Why I Give: Keith and Sarah Faller

Keith and Sarah Faller NICU
Sarah and Keith Faller visit the Riley NICU

Many new parents experience their first rush of parental love when their newborn is placed in their arms. For Sarah Faller, that moment came when she placed her hand into an isolette and touched one of her twin sons for the first time: “That was the moment for me — everything else around us stopped and got quiet, and I could just enjoy being his mother.”

Sarah and Keith Faller’s sons, Andrew and Philip, arrived in 1987 at just 25 weeks’ gestation — nearly four months before their due date. Andrew survived for only one night. Philip passed away after undergoing five months of treatment in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit at Riley Hospital for Children. “We didn’t get the outcome we would have hoped for,” explains Sarah. “But I felt the system worked as best it could for us, and that was hugely helpful in accepting our loss.”

The couple’s Riley experience ultimately inspired them to get more involved. “We were astonished by the commitment of the staff and physicians at Riley,” explains Keith. “But the parents were a little bit left out of the equation. We were fairly mature parents, but we saw 20-year-olds coming into this situation and wondered, how can they possibly navigate this?”

Sarah accepted an invitation from Drs. Jim Lemons and Richard Schreiner in 1989 to help establish a Riley Newborn Parents Association, where she worked as a staff member. “You just want to give something back after Riley has seen you through something,” she says. Later, the Fallers made a generous endowment gift, which allowed Riley to hire a full-time NICU Family Support Director. That director, Susan Henderson-Sears, continues to lead the Riley program today. Her team now includes four staff members, and is the most extensive family support program of its kind at any pediatric hospital nationwide.

“We provide information and education, advocacy and support for families,” explains Henderson-Sears. “We can help a family find a crib, show them how to fill out a Medicaid application, provide meals or just

Shana and Jana VanLandingham
NICU Family Support Program Director Susan Henderson Sears (right) spends time with Shana VanLandingham, Martinsville, Ind., and her daughter, Jana.

listen to a parent who is having a bad day.” From scrapbooking, to group snack hours, to sibling support, to a mentor program, the NICU Family Support Program gives families chances to learn from each other. “It’s really been a blessing,” says Shana Van Landingham from Martinsville, whose infant daughter Jana spent several weeks in the Riley NICU. “They’ll ask how you are and really sit and listen. It’s a little bit of normal – a little bit of home.”

The Fallers have made more recent gifts to the NICU Family Support Program in addition to their endowment fund, which has also received contributions from other donors. Because of this high level of support, the NICU Family Support Program continues to expand and offer new services. Staff members say it’s deeply rewarding to see the ways families benefit from the program. “We like to watch the evolution of families,” explains Henderson-Sears. “A lot of parents are at first too afraid to touch their baby, and we see them grow more confident and become a full, active partner on their child’s care team.”

To Sarah Faller, that’s the greatest gift she could give a NICU mother or father: a strong start that enables them to experience the joy of parenthood, even when the child’s life is brief or filled with challenges. “If they don’t ever get the chance to feel like they were the parent of their child, they’ve just really lost a big dream.”

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