Bringing New Life into the World Every Day

In celebration of Women in Medicine Month, we honor the women caring for women and our youngest patients. 

Nailah “Zoi” Cox, RN, (left) and Dr. Erica Wu (right).

When Nailah “Zoi” Cox first witnessed the delivery of a new life into the world, it changed her own.

While in a nursing class, she received word that a birth was about to happen and without hesitation she rushed to be there.

“I remember standing there for a two-hour C-section and while they’re pulling the baby out, I’m thinking, ‘This is the greatest thing ever. I need to be a part of this,’” Cox said.

In recognition of Women in Medicine month, we are celebrating the women who care for women at the Johnson Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Services. As the only children’s hospital in the Bay Area that offers obstetric, neonatal, and developmental medicine services all in one place, the center is committed to ensuring the strongest start for pregnant women and our youngest patients.

Zoi Cox, RN, understands the significant impact of her work on health outcomes, particularly for Black mothers. While there is increasing awareness and alarm regarding the racial disparity in maternal healthcare, where Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy than white women, there remains a dearth of Black nurses.

“It’s not like there’s a different language but culturally there’s a different understanding,” Cox said. “They know I understand certain things, that I’m not going to question certain things. I can see the weight being lifted off my patient.”

To help address racial disparities, she advocates for nurturing and inspiring Black children to consider careers in medicine from a young age. During her childhood, her father encouraged her to pursue a career in healthcare.

“I would hope that starting from middle or high school, that they do see that it’s something that they can do,” she said. “We need more Black nurses and they should definitely try to go into the medical field.”

Caring for two patients

The complexity of obstetrics drew Erica Wu, MD, to the field.

“You’re caring for two patients with every interaction — there’s a mom and a baby and you have to weigh needs that are often competing equally,” she said.

“Depending on your perspective, the ‘best’ outcome is not always straightforward. Sometimes the best outcome for mom might not be the best for baby and vice versa,” she said. “Additionally, patients often have personal belief systems regarding pregnancy, labor, and childbirth that must be taken into account.”

Growing up in a family of five sisters, Dr. Wu saw many of them experience pregnancy during her formative years. She highlighted another unique aspect of the specialty: Many of the care providers have also been in the patient’s role.

“I can relate to my patient in a way that is very personal because I’ve experienced pregnancies of my own,” she said, as a mother of two. “I think patients really appreciate that because they understand that you’ve been there. You know what it feels like to be pregnant and to worry about things even though the pregnancy may be uncomplicated from the outside.”

Bringing life into the world

Paulina Wszolek received such empathetic care when she had her first baby and it had a life-changing impact.

“My nurse Lolly held my hand the whole time and talked me through everything,” Wszolek said. “As soon as I had her as a nurse, I thought, this is what I want to do.”

Wszolek enrolled in nursing school. As a single mom, she juggled studying with new parenthood and attended classes while her mother helped care for her son. In her last semester, while pregnant with her second child, she went to the hospital in the morning for rotation and returned that night to have her baby. To finish the program, she crammed in studying late at night in between feedings. But for Wszolek those sleepless nights were worth it.

“Knowing that I make a difference and being a part of their birth story that they’ll eventually tell their kids is amazing,” Wszolek said. “Bringing life into the world every day — who doesn’t want to do that?”

Whether it’s seeing a twin breech extraction or a surgery on a baby in utero, Wszolek said she remains in awe of the diverse range of patients the Johnson Center is able to help.

“We take everyone on. I think we’re the only hospital that doesn’t turn anyone away,” she said. “I saw regular births for so long and then seeing high-risk patients, it’s amazing. If there’s an emergency going down, I know we’ll be fine because we have the people we need.”

Paulina Wszolek, RN (left)

From doctor to patient’s parent

Neonatologist Anca Pasca, MD, is driven by her commitment to supporting high-risk patients and researching ways to find therapies for brain injuries in extremely pre-term babies.

She realized that while technology can keep the infants alive, it cannot prevent devastating brain injuries. “We need to help them not just survive but thrive. So, then finding treatments for brain injury became something very, very important to me.”

Her research delves into the adverse effects of low oxygen levels on the brains of extremely preterm babies and explores ways to prevent neurodevelopmental impairments.

Balancing cutting-edge research with raising a young family posed considerable challenges when she had her own children.

“I had my second son on Tuesday, and then on Friday I was in the lab doing the critical experiments for the revisions [for a paper] because I had grown these organoids for like three months,” Dr. Pasca recalled. “It was really brutal. Everything was really, really hard. But I had to do it. I just didn’t think that I could let all the work go to waste because I gave birth a few days before.”

Dr. Pasca hopes that things will change for women in medicine in the future and encourages young mothers to “be kind to themselves.”

“I want to believe I was always compassionate,” she said. “But I think the level of compassion and understanding changed dramatically after I had children.”

When doctors suspected that her older son might have a serious chronic disease and required an MRI of his brain, she found herself on the other side of the hospital room door.

“I remember the helplessness that I felt waiting with other parents in the imaging room,” she said. “I’m used to being in charge and in control in the hospital but being in that room alone, waiting for him to come out of the MRI with other desperate parents… that changed me forever.

“Families wake up every day and come there and see their babies suffer and go through so much. My patients and their families have taught me so much about strength, resilience, patience and love. And they continue to amaze me because babies are so tough and resilient and yet so fragile at the same time.”

Dr. Anca Pasca (center)


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