In hindsight, Lindsey Walker could not be happier with the decision she and her husband made to bring their twins, who had been born prematurely, closer to home to continue their care.
To be sure, the doctors and nurses at the Boston hospital where Mac and Marnie had been born were top notch, the technology state-of-the-art and gleaming.
But there was something special about having the twins at Salem Hospital, beyond sparing Walker two-plus hours in the car round trip.
Now, Mac and Marnie are thriving 17-month-olds, while their mom is excited to be in the first year of her three-year term on the 16-member board of the Merry Mixers. The Marblehead-based 73-year-old nonprofit organization has become one of the most important allies for newborns and their care providers at Salem Hospital.
“To say the Merry Mixers are essential is an understatement,” said Kate Bailey, director of development at Salem Hospital. “Their consistency in funding specific projects for us is tremendous, and we can count on their generosity every year.”
In recent years, those projects have included helping to create a one-of-a-kind outdoor play space to be used by pediatric psychiatry inpatients.
That play space allows the hospital’s youngest mental health patients get some fresh air and sun on their faces in a setting that also affords them some privacy, so they are not on display.
One doctor, Dr. Jefferson Prince, has found it particularly effective to take his patients out to shoot hoops rather than always conduct sessions in his office, Bailey noted.
For its 70th anniversary year in 2020, Merry Mixers presented Salem Hospital with $73,000 to help beautify the pediatric unit in the Epstein Center for Behavioral Health with artwork and murals while also updating technology in the Special Care Nursery. It also continued funding of the Behavioral Health Family Resource Center, which had begun in 2014.
Last year, the Merry Mixers set a new standard for themselves, making their largest annual donation of $90,000.
Current co-chair Alexandra Fenty said the group is particularly proud of how the Merry Mixers roared back after the pandemic loosened its grip.
“The COVID years were tough for us,” she said. “It was hard to fundraise because we couldn’t have a lot of events. So last year, we were back in the swing of things, and we did really well.”
The Special Care Nursery’s recent acquisition of a retinal scanner — previously, babies would need to be brought to MGH in Boston for such scans — is a typical example of the kind of project the Merry Mixers fund: technology the lack of which the staff at Salem Hospital might be able to work around but that provides real benefits to local families when it exists in house.
The Merry Mixers raise the money for these donations with a series of fundraising events during the course of the year, one of which is its annual gala, to be held this year on June 3 at Kernwood Country Club.
One of the Merry Mixers’ other major fundraisers is a 50-50 raffle, the winner of which is drawn during the tree lighting festivities in the parking lot of National Grand Bank during the Christmas Walk.
Beyond those annual staples, the group has been trying to “keep it fun for everyone” by injecting some new ideas into the mix. One example is a winter wellness program, which offered virtual and in-person fitness classes, along with a fitness clothing shopping event.
The group also held its first paddle tennis tournament this year.
“We’re just trying to have people in the community meet each other, do something physical in person, while also raising money,” Fenty said.
Where that money will be allocated specifically is an annual conversation between the Merry Mixers and hospital staff. But Fenty said that, generally speaking, in recent years, the funds have been earmarked for three areas of the hospital: the pediatric psychiatry unit, the general department of pediatrics and the Family Resource Center.
The Family Resource Center provides behavioral health education, support and resources for children, adolescents, teens, adults and professionals throughout the year. People need not be patients to take advantage of the offerings.
“The Family Resource Center is a benefit to the community that is especially important right now, where we are in the middle of a mental health crisis,” Bailey said.
Through webinars and other programs, families can seek out a little bit of help to get them through tough times, she added.
The Merry Mixers are the only external source of funding for the center, Fenty noted.
With respect to the pediatric psychiatry unit, Merry Mixers funding this year will purchase Chromebooks for inpatient patients to use, which will enable them to keep up with school work during extended stays while allowing hospital staff to have more control over the usage of the technology than with the patients’ personal devices.
Additional funding for the pediatric psychiatry unit will be earmarked towards staff training with the goal of reducing what is currently a long waitlist for outpatient services.
With respect to the general pediatric department, the Merry Mixers funding often purchases equipment that may be less than mandatory but still provides great comfort to patients and their families. An example is the mobile X-ray unit that the Merry Mixers helped purchase that allows patients to remain in the relative security of their pediatric “pods” instead of being wheeled down to the radiology department, Bailey said.
She added that this summer should see the completion of a Merry Mixers project delayed by COVID to install an LED lighting system that will allow children receiving treatment to be distracted by a waterfall or the solar system rather than having to look at a bare ceiling. An LED fish tank in the waiting room is already a “huge hit,” Bailey.
This year, funding will be targeted for the purchase of a Babyleo, a state-of-the-art incubator for babies born prematurely.
It is the type of technology that Walker knows the value of all too well.
But Walker said that she is also grateful that volunteering with the Merry Mixers affords her the opportunity to give back to doctors and nurses who bring palpable joy and uncommon dedication to their jobs.
“They are not just clocking in and out,” Walker said.
Walker and her husband, Ian, spent their babies’ first Christmas in the Special Care Nursery. She watched as the nurses and staff arranged for a photographer to come in for holiday photo shoots and dressed the children in coordinated festive outfits — all on their own dime, at least as of then. Walker said the Merry Mixers hope they can step in and support such efforts as well.
The Walkers have their own story of one particular nurse’s devotion to her patients. As often happens with premature twins, one — in this case, Mac — was ready to go home before his sister. Lindsey recalled one nurse, Sierra Johnson, who dedicated the better part of a day to getting Marnie to bottle feed so that she could reunite with her brother in short order.
Mac and Marnie are now 17 months old and are “doing great,” hitting all the benchmarks for children their age.
“All the care they received up to this point has been crucial,” she said.
Walker knows stories like her family’s are unfolding daily at the Special Care Nursery. Through her work with the Merry Mixers, she is happy to have a hand in writing other happy endings.
The Merry Mixers’ annual Heart in Hands Gala will be held Saturday, June 3, 6:30 p.m. at Kernwood Country Club in Salem.
This year’s event will have the theme, “A Night in Monte Carlo,” with casino table games like blackjack, craps, roulette and Texas Hold’em poker part of the festivities in addition to a live band, a beer-and-wine open bar, food stations and an always-popular silent auction.
In last year’s silent auction, the opportunity to develop and name a sandwich at Shubie’s Marketplace was a hot commodity, noted Merry Mixers board member Lindsey Walker.
This year, Walker said one big ticket item will be a trip to attend a taping of “Watch What Happens Live” with Andy Cohen.