A pediatric physical therapist, Jess Smith is responsible for the physical therapy needs of all the children admitted to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, where she’s worked for 18 years. At home in Arlington, Jess and her husband, Chris, are responsible for the needs of their three children: Addison, 13; Mackenzie, 11; and Sebastian, 7.
We talked to Jess about how she juggles taking care of so many people—the babies in the NICU, her family and herself.
What do you love about the work you do?
I work in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) and with pediatric transplant, pediatric hematology-oncology and general pediatric patients. A few years ago, I became one of the first board-certified neonatal therapists in the world. It is an honor to work with the tiniest, most-fragile patients in the hospital.
My role in the NICU is to protect the neurobehavioral development of these infants by helping to recreate the protective environment of the womb so the development that is supposed to be happening in utero can happen in a supportive and less stressful way. I provide these positive experiences by comforting babies during painful procedures, giving massages (and teaching parents how to massage their infant), positioning the babies in ways that support their lung, bone and muscle development and empowering parents in their very important, yet completely foreign, role in the NICU.
Helping a mom hold her baby for the first time, despite her fears and the many tubes and wires, is one of my favorite things. Of course, seeing my patients leave the NICU for home is my absolute favorite thing.
My job is my dream job. I work with a fantastic team of individuals and look forward to going to work every morning to make a positive difference in the lives of my patients and their families. And because of my life experiences, I don’t take one single second for granted.
What is the Juliet Grace Smith Foundation?
My husband and I started the Juliet Grace Smith Foundation (JGSF) in 2012 in memory of our third daughter, Juliet Grace, who passed away in 2011 from complications of prematurity. She was born four months early, weighing less than two pounds, and fought for six months in the hospital before losing her battle. So not only do I work in the NICU, I am also a NICU parent.
This valuable perspective helps Chris and I choose projects for the Foundation that will improve the experience of other NICU families while remembering Juliet Grace. For example, we host pampering parties every couple of months for NICU families and have purchased comfortable recliners for parents and hundreds of books for them to read to their baby while they visit. We have also gifted $150,000 to fund support staff dedicated to the NICU at MedStar Georgetown, such as a clinical psychologist and a family support specialist.
What do you love about being a mom?
Watching my children grow into their own personalities—struggling through challenges and overcoming fears—and being proud of their accomplishments is what makes my heart burst. We took a family trip to four National Parks last summer, covering over 2,000 miles by car and more than 50 miles by foot.
Through it all, our three kids stuck together. They encouraged each other when one was struggling on a trail or bored in the car, and they kept us all entertained with jokes, pranks and playlists. Experiencing that adventure together and seeing our kids find so much enjoyment in our world made me so proud to be their mom. I can’t wait to plan our next adventure.
What do you find challenging about raising kids?
One of my biggest challenges in raising my three kids is that they are each so different and can’t be parented in the same way. What works for one child doesn’t necessarily work for the others. I have to frequently remind myself who I’m dealing with before responding, although sometimes I fail at that and my words backfire. The humbling apology that comes from me next is sometimes the bigger lesson.
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What’s something that makes juggling motherhood and your career a little bit easier?
Having a supportive husband who works from home and has a fairly flexible schedule is huge. Having a great group of friends to help carpool everyone to and from sporting events is invaluable. I absolutely could not do it without my village. And teaching my kids at an early age how to make dinner so that it’s done before I get home from my long shift at work is helpful, too!
What do you and your family love to do together?
Our favorite indoor activities are playing games (Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan and Racko are some of our go-tos), watching cooking competitions on TV and finding new craft projects to tackle. We also love to be outdoors hiking, swimming and playing soccer.
We don’t do a ton of traveling, but we always enjoy when we can squeeze in a trip to Sandbridge Beach or the Outer Banks. After reaping the rewards of our fantastic National Parks trip last summer, I think we are going to have to make travel more of a priority.
How do you take care of your mental and physical health?
I learned pretty early on in my motherhood journey that you must put on your own oxygen mask first. Taking some time to myself (and not feeling guilty about it) makes me a better and more patient mom.
I make time for a weekly yoga class and recently found a love for spin (the louder the music, the better). I make an effort to meet friends for lunch or coffee every week, and I like to grab a good book and hide out in the corner of a local coffee shop for an hour or two. Little escapes refuel me and help me get through the stressful times.
Having lost a child, I find that I have many emotions bubbling just beneath the surface. I never know when something is going to crack that surface and those emotions are going to all come spilling out. When that happens, I let it out. I get in the car, roll the windows down so I can feel the wind and blast the radio. The tears fall, but I always feel better after.
What would you do if you had one hour without any responsibilities?
Hmm, in the current environment of “stay-at-home” and “social distancing” my answer is a bit different. Having the whole crew under the same roof all of the time leaves me wanting some solitude. Right now I would love one hour to lie in a hammock with a delicious drink (maybe a good bourbon barrel stout) and doze off with a good book without a single interruption.
Prior to COVID-19, I would choose coffee with a friend to catch up, share a laugh, maybe a few tears and a hug. That’s actually what I miss most: the hugs.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2020 issue of Washington FAMILY.