Neonatologist offers 'prayer points' to allay parental anxiety

October 1, 2016


Andrea Mullenmeister got a harrowing introduction to motherhood. While on vacation and 23 weeks pregnant, she went into labor. She was airlifted to St. Cloud Hospital in St. Cloud, Minn., where her son Jaxson was born four months early, weighing 1 pound, 8 ounces.

Neonatologist Dr. Oluade Ajayi and nurse Angela Overland touch base on St. Cloud Hospital neonatal intensive care unit staffing.
Photo by: Andra Johnson

"We had just gotten used to the idea of being parents," she said, and suddenly, they were, far sooner than was healthy for their baby. She and her husband Steve couldn't hold Jaxson in their arms. She remembers the antiseptic smell of the neonatal intensive care unit, and looking at Jaxson, his eyes fused shut, arms and legs as thin as twigs, his blood visibly pumping through his nearly transparent skin. "It's just so not what you picture your new baby to look like."

Neonatologist Dr. Oluade Ajayi met the couple within their first few hours at the hospital and the doctor offered some comfort, by drawing the couple's attention to their baby's feet and "the five perfect toes on each foot," Andrea Mullenmeister said. "He was the one who taught us to look past all the tubes and wires."

Ajayi then introduced the couple to the use of a technique called "prayer points," encouraging them initially to pray that their son's toes would remain healthy and pink. When Ajayi is caring for a premature baby and feels he has enough rapport with a family to ask if they pray, or to ask if they have relatives and friends seeking prayer requests for the baby and the family, he'll offer them a prayer point — a specific and focused prayer based on the baby's condition.

A prayer point one day might be that a baby won't be on a ventilator too long so that the odds of developing pneumonia will be reduced; another day, it might be that the baby won't need heart surgery; still another it might be that the baby will open his or her eyes that day.

Mullenmeister said she and her husband don't subscribe to a particular faith tradition. Even so, they found Ajayi's prayer points a useful tool. "To have something like that to hold on to was so helpful," she said. "He described it to us as a short-term goal to focus on, a way to not get consumed by the 'what ifs.'"

Break it down
Ajayi said the idea of giving people specific, short-term prayers to focus on didn't originate with him. It has long been used to keep people under extreme stress from overarching worry.

He said every process, no matter how complex, is made up of a series of steps. Ajayi said an important part of his work is sitting down with families, telling them what he medically knows, what he does not know, and what he thinks may happen next based on what he's observing.

Having a premature baby in the NICU can be an emotional roller coaster ride, with unexpected highs and terrifying lows. Ajayi has heard from families that the prayer points can tamp down the fear and anxiety as they face immediate complications, the possibility of death or an uncertain long-term prognosis.

Jaxson Mullenmeister was born weighing 1 pound, 8 ounces. Today Jaxson is an active 4-year-old. He's shown here at age 2, playing on a swing set.

Ajayi is a Christian. He said he has learned about other faiths and religious traditions, so he can broach the subject of prayer with sensitivity and respect.

A Baylor University study from earlier this year said that nearly nine out of 10 Americans have prayed for healing and were more apt to pray for others than themselves. Sometimes when parents don't pray, they have family or friends who want to pray for them and their baby, so Ajayi suggests they pass along the latest prayer point. Some families with NICU babies post on web pages to update loved ones on a baby's progress, and they may post the latest prayer points there, to provide an intention for people's prayers.

Not all the preemies in intensive care survive, and Ajayi said he is careful to select prayer points that are realistic given a patient's prognosis.

The Mullenmeisters had a good outcome. Their son, Jaxson, now 4, is a "bright light," who loves to play tag and hide and seek. He's had some developmental delays and still requires more doctor visits than many children his age. Mullenmeister said she and her husband still create prayer points to focus on together.

Prayer points helped Kara and Doug Waldvogel of Nelson, Minn., weather the ups and downs of their baby Andrew's stay in the St. Cloud NICU. He was born at 24 weeks' gestation, weighing 1 pound, 5 ounces, and spent just shy of four months at the hospital. He recently went home where he joined four siblings.

Kara Waldvogel said she found it reassuring to hear Ajayi "speak about faith, speak about prayer." Andrew "has made so much progress," she said, but he's still on an oxygen monitor and requires high blood pressure medicine. He has retinopathy of prematurity, an eye condition that doctors will continue to monitor.

She said the family uses prayer points to manage the stress and uncertainty about the medical and developmental challenges that might lay ahead for Andrew. "A lot of this you're not going to know for a while," she said.


Links to related abstracts or studies on spirituality, prayer and healing:

Link to Andrea Mullenmeister’s blog: 


Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2016 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.