Nebraska nurse Mackenzie Denich instantly connected with a baby who was born with a host of medical issues — and just one day after her birth, the newborn’s family asked if she would adopt her. Over the summer, their forever bond became official.
“Babies are supposed to be with their moms. In a perfect world, we wouldn't be together, but the world is not perfect,” Mackenzie Denich, a 39-year-old neonatal nurse practitioner in the NICU at Children’s Nebraska, tells PEOPLE “I'm so thankful that she is here. I tell her every day, 'I'm so happy to be your mom.'"
“These two were connected really early on. There was just a bond there that you could see,” adds Dr. James Vargo, a craniofacial and pediatric plastic surgeon at Children’s Nebraska, who was part of the baby’s care team. “It was one of those things that was meant to be.”
In July 2021, Denich’s mother spoke with a couple at church whose daughter was pregnant. They said their daughter was not going to be able to take care of the child and that they were looking for someone to raise the baby.
“They wanted to be grandparents, they didn’t want to be parents again,” Denich says. “My mom said, “Mackenzie will take her.”
After her mother told her about the conversation, Denich started writing a shopping list of baby gear she would need. Then she stopped herself.
“I was like, 'What am I doing? This is not happening,'” the Omaha nurse says. “Why would a family choose a single mom who doesn't have other kids? So, I just put it out of my mind.”
Denich was actually working on Oct. 11, 2021, when Athena was admitted to Children’s Nebraska. When she met the newborn just four hours after her birth, she immediately fell in love.
“She needs me,” Denich remembers thinking.
The next day, the baby's biological grandmother asked Denich if she was interested in adopting the newborn and the nurse said yes.
Athena was born with a host of medical issues and in the first days of her life, she underwent surgery to repair her cleft lip and palate as well as her disconnected esophagus. However, because Denich is an expert at caring for babies with complex medical needs, the baby was able to come home when she was three weeks old.
At home, Denich has been lucky to have plenty of support.
She comes from a family of nurses — both her parents and her two brothers and her two sisters in law are all nurses — and her father cares for Athena while Denich works at the hospital. “The whole family is well-equipped to care for her,” Denich says. “I can trust her with everyone.”
More than 50 friends and family were at the courthouse when Denich legally adopted Athena, now 2, on July 14, 2023.
“I think adoption is two things: It's happy and sad,” Denich says. “It was a really lovely thing that came from a really traumatic event, but it was worth it. And I'm committed to doing the best job that I can for her — both with her medical care and her little heart.”
People often ask what the little girl’s “diagnosis” is and why she is smaller than other children her age, but her mother — who advocates for acceptance of people with differences — says it doesn’t matter and declines to answer.
Athena, who wears a hearing aid, uses a feeding tube and undergoes speech and physical therapy, currently has a team of 15 medical specialists and to date has had six surgeries. But she's not defined by her medical challenges: she's also a chatty toddler who loves puppies, coloring and trips to the zoo.
“What is there not to love?” says Denich's mother Brenda, a pre-op and PACU nurse at an orthopedic hospital. “She's pretty special.”
Athena still sees her biological grandparents every week, and regularly talks to her biological aunt, cousin and birth parents.
“We have their pictures in our home, and we talk about it, because I don't want her to ever have a day where she finds out. I just want her to know,” Denich says. “I hope that she feels deeply wanted and loved and cared for.”
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