NICU nurse is an angel to babies and children in need

Her work to help children goes well beyond the hospital
Published: Dec. 15, 2022 at 5:14 PM EST
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ROANOKE Co., Va. (WDBJ) - This week’s Hometown Holiday Helpers focuses on a woman who takes care of the tiniest patients. She has worked in the neonatal intensive care unit at Carilion Roanoke Memorial for decades.

It’s this work that led her to her unyielding love for children who need chronic care and a role that goes well beyond the hospital.

“I saw kids that needed some homes,” said Martha Kilburn.

Kilburn wanted to foster a baby or adopt but she didn’t think she’d be accepted as a single working woman. “I had a friend that said... you’ll never know if you don’t try,” Kilburn recalled.

Try, she did- and before long, Kilburn took home a baby boy named Cory. He suffered from a form of muscular dystrophy and struggled to breathe.

“He came home with a trach [tracheotomy] and a ventilator and a feeding tube,” said Kilburn. Photos of Cory now line a shelf at Kilburn’s home- a reminder of her first child’s life that was cut short at just eight years old.

“We knew the last year or so of his life that he was going to pass away. He had a heart condition that was unrelated to his muscular dystrophy that eventually cost him his life,” said Kilburn.

One year later Kilburn came home with a baby girl born prematurely and suffering from Noonan syndrome.

“It causes her to have a lot of unique special needs,” said Kilburn.

And her youngest also came into her life at just eight months old. Dee, who is now 15, was also a preemie in her unit.

“He had probably some of the most catastrophic issues,” said Kilburn. “He can hear and see but he doesn’t have the signals in his brain that interpret that data.”

Kilburn leads a very busy life, still working a few days a week, shuttling the kids to physical therapy, doctors’ appointments and many activities- including fun events like the Vinton Christmas parade with other special needs children.

But she’s always ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice when the phone rings.

In fact, just running a simple errand can be a challenge. “Several times where I’ve gone to get my car inspected the school’s called because of an emergency,” Kilburn said.

Back home, trophies from the kids’ challenger basketball games are displayed in her home. On the living room floor, there are three oxygen machines--- something the kids need to help them breathe.

It’s a life many would consider difficult, but not Martha Kilburn, who says watching her children grow is worth it all.

“You don’t realize just how amazing it is watching little things, like a child learning to feed themselves for the first time or learning to stand up,” said Kilburn. “They have taught me so much. They really really have. And it really is just to appreciate the little things.”

The person who nominated Kilburn for Hometown Holiday Helpers called her an angel on earth.

“They’re wrong. I’m just doing my best.” Kilburn said. “That’s all I’m doing.”

We weren’t surprised when Kilburn said she would not use any of the $700 winnings on herself. “My daughter has two baby dolls that she absolutely loves.” Kilburn said. “She would like a third one. Santa maybe will bring one.”

But more than anything Martha wants to give back.

“I’m hoping that some of the angel trees are still out there. And that I can take my kids shopping for some angels,” Kilburn said.

For the woman who is the angel to premature babies and children in need, WDBJ7 choose her as a recipient of Hometown Holiday Helpers and awarded her $700 in gift cards.

Kilburn had tears in her eyes as she accepted the gift from WDBJ7 anchors Jean Jadhon and Natalie Faunce, and she told them she can’t wait to take her daughter shopping for other kids in need.

“She puts such thought into picking something out for somebody and there is a reason why,” Kilburn said. “Because she cares so much about other people.”