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MUNSTER — A lot of babies will sleep safe tonight in Northwest Indiana thanks to Mary Puntillo.

The neonatal nurse clinician was holding one of them the other day at Community Hospital, where she has worked for 36 years.

That newborn's mother, Anissa Rodriguez of Whiting, had taken the hospital's childbirth class, which Puntillo facilitates. There, Anissa learned about the "ABCs" of safe sleep: Babies should always sleep alone, on their backs, in cribs.

"I thought sleeping with a teddy bear or something was OK," said a glowing Rodriguez, whose son, Ameleo, was born Oct. 9. "He should sleep bare, on his back. Nothing should be in there."

Sitting next to Anissa's hospital bed, Puntillo looked elated: Her message had gotten through to another Region family.

For all her advocacy on behalf of the most vulnerable humans, Puntillo was recently named caregiver of the year by the Indiana Hospital Association. She received the honor at the group's annual awards ceremony this fall in Indianapolis.

"She has worked tirelessly to increase the safety of our infants in Indiana, particularly in Northwest Indiana, even when she was met with resistance," said Teresa Meece, nurse manager of labor and delivery and the mother-baby unit at Community Hospital. "It's hard to change people's attitudes."

Puntillo has been spreading the word about how to keep sleeping infants alive since the early 1990s. That's when the American Academy of Pediatrics first recommended that babies sleep on their backs as a way to prevent sudden infant death syndrome.

Puntillo said she was then pregnant with her third child and thought, "He was a puker. I can't put him on his back."

But she listened to the experts. At the time, though, not everyone bought into her message, even those in the health care field. The prevailing wisdom: People for years had been letting their kids sleep on their stomachs, with dolls, in bed — and those children turned out OK. Why change now?

To save lives, Puntillo would tell them. Indiana has long had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the nation, and babies die in Lake County at an even higher clip than the rest of the state. Accidental suffocation or strangulation during sleep is the fourth-leading cause of death for Hoosier babies.

Puntillo never relented in preaching safe sleep practices. She incorporated the lessons into classes for expectant parents and grandparents. She made sure Community Hospital and its sister facilities — St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago and St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart — modeled safe sleep in their nurseries. She even had one of the hospitals take down a picture of a newborn with a blanket in the crib.

She promoted her message at meetings of the Northwest Indiana Patient Safety Coalition, which is made up of Region hospitals, clinics and nursing programs. Those hospitals have all since been certified by Cribs for Kids, a national organization dedicated to safe sleep for infants.

She has even lectured local baby stores about prominently displaying crib bumpers.

Her colleagues say she's an inspiration; one even became an educator at the hospital after taking one of Puntillo's classes.

"The other nurses she works with, they look up to her and get advice from her," said Debra O'Neill, clinical team leader for the neonatal intensive-care and mother-baby units at Community Hospital.

Puntillo's coworkers first nominated her for Community Hospital's caregiver of the year award, which she won. They then put her name in for the statewide honor. "Next we're going national," said Jean Gardner, director of education for Community Healthcare System, during a recent meeting with Puntillo and some her associates.

"The award is overwhelming, because one person doesn't do this alone," Puntillo said, her smile infectious. "This is a celebration for all of us."

"Every organization has a catalyst," Meece said.

"And Mary is ours," O'Neill commented.

"She's very humble," Gardner said.

"You're only as good as the people around you," Puntillo countered.

"And you only rise as high as your leadership," responded clinical educator Hope Robinson.

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.