Eleven years ago, Kasia McMullen-Koontz, then 29, was working a regular day as a catering sales manager at the Saint Louis Art Museum. She was 26 weeks pregnant. At one point in the day, she started to feel a sharp pain and was admitted at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
After five days of being on bed rest, her daughter was born weighing only 1 pound and 10 ounces.
“She is a miracle child, and she is so special,” said McCullen-Koontz. “But I never thought in a million years that that would be my story.”
Her daughter was in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) until her actual due date – or for 14 weeks. About a month into her stay, McMullen-Koontz was approached to be part of a Washington University study looking into premature babies’ brain development and mental health. They have continued to participate for 11 years.
“From all the activities and their interviews with her, I get a chance to see how she is developing,” she said. “I’m really excited to be able to help preemie babies because that’s a club that I never thought existed, definitely didn’t think I would be a part of. We all have some of the same struggles.”
The research project is led by Dr. Cynthia Rogers, a child psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Washington University. Her team looks at how an infant’s brain may give clues for who is at risk for psychiatric disorders later in life.
Rogers wears many different hats at Washington University. She is the director of the university’s Perinatal Behavioral Health Service, which serves pregnant and postpartum women with psychiatric and substance use disorders who receive care at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and who have infants in the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Neonatal and Cardiac Intensive Care Units.
Rogers also leads the NICU Behavioral Health Clinic, a teaching consultation clinic for young children with early developmental and social-emotional delays who were born prematurely.
And Rogers also co-directs the Washington University Neonatal Development Research (WUNDER) lab, a research group that conducts longitudinal studies to understand how adverse early environmental stressors like exposure to poverty and maternal depression affect infants and early childhood brain development and increase the risk for childhood psychiatric disorders.
While her work often involves using long sentences that are heavy on the medical terms, there is a simple, overarching theme to all of it.
“Continuing to help everyone understand the importance of supporting healthy moms so we can have healthy babies is really my passion,” Rogers said. “It cuts across what I do clinically and the research that I do.”
On April 26, Rogers will receive the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund/
Dr. John M. Anderson Excellence in Mental Health Award. She will be presented with this honor at the St. Louis American Foundation’s 19th annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards Luncheon at the Frontenac Hilton.
Rogers is being recognized for her important work to promote the positive social and emotional development of babies in the region, said Emily Koenig, interim executive director at the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund.
“Attachment and bonding is the foundation for long-term mental health and development,” Koenig said. “Dr. Rogers’ holistic approach to supporting both mothers and babies through a collaborative, community-based effort is a much needed resource for the region.”
Rogers said the way caregivers engage with their babies has a big impact on the babies’ brain development.
“How mothers respond to the child when they are in need is really important in how the child develops emotionally,” Rogers said.
They also look at the moms’ depression and stress during the infants’ stay in the NICU. Some moms were more depressed in the NICU period because they didn’t feel like they were able to be the infant’s parent because the infant was so critically ill, she said.
Their studies have found that the way a mother feels during the NICU period and the support she receives predicts how the mom was engaging with the child at age 5.
“Those are the things that we can target,” Rogers said.
Seven years ago, she started the Perinatal Behavioral Health Service to help struggling moms.
“When I first started, it was just me seeing patients half a day a week,” Rogers said. “And now the service has grown to touch thousands of women who are seen at this medical campus and also from the community. The growth of the service and the number of women we’ve reached is definitely one of my sources of pride.”
It is far from a one-woman show, she said, and she is equally proud of the hard work that her colleagues have done to support these women.
Rogers grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and earned a psychology undergraduate degree from Harvard University. She received her M.D. and completed her general psychiatry residency and child and adolescent psychiatry fellowship at Washington University School of Medicine. She has now been in St. Louis for 18 years.
She strongly advocates for expanding coverage for pregnant and postpartum women, who lose their insurance at 60 days postpartum in Missouri. She is also passionate about addressing racial inequities in access to care.
“In St. Louis, the inequities are very stark,” Rogers said. “All throughout my clinical training, I have been faced with patients whose lack of access to resources has impacted their care.”
It became particularly stark watching the women who were unable to access mental health care two months after their babies were born – because their insurance wouldn’t cover it.
Rogers said, “Living in a state where that happens has certainly made me feel like I can’t necessarily sit on the sidelines.”
Tickets for the 19th Annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards Luncheon on Friday, April 26 at the Frontenac Hilton are $750 per table for VIP/Corporate seating and $50 each/$500 table for Individual seating. To order tickets, call 314-533-8000 or visit www.stlamerican.com.