September 21, 2020 – I frequently hear from alumni and current students how speech and debate changed their lives. They learned to research, to think quickly, to really listen to others, and to communicate. Like so many, I use my speech and debate skills every day at work. Debate’s portable skills have helped me reach my career goals. But, since September is Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) Awareness Month, I want to share how speech and debate skills got us through our most difficult challenge.
When I was the Executive Director of the Dallas Urban Debate Alliance, I met my husband Darrel when he came to volunteer. Like myself, Darrel was a poor Latino student who credits his debate experience for giving him the tools to succeed in life. We both relied, in one way or another, on our debate skills to help us reach new career highs.
In 2016, we were expecting our first child. I had a tough pregnancy, but thought it was from overdoing it with travel and work. After returning from a work trip, I nearly canceled a regular prenatal visit thinking I was recovering from changing altitude in Utah. Luckily, the only option to reschedule was during an important work meeting later in the week. So, swollen and in pain, my husband dragged me to our regular prenatal appointment at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. My doctor quickly diagnosed me with Class 1 HELLP (Hemolysis, Elevated liver enzymes, and Low Platelet count) Syndrome. My life and my child’s life were in the balance.
I was able to advocate for them not to immediately deliver our child and was able to stay pregnant a few crucial days. At 24 weeks and 3 days, my son Carlos Jesus “CJ” was born weighing 435 grams (less than one pound). He spent 148 long days in the NICU before coming home with supplemental oxygen, a feeding tube, and a dozen medications. He is now a happy and healthy 4 year old.
In 2018, I attended a University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital Conference on the care of periviable infants to better understand how they had saved my son’s life. I listened to one of my son’s neonatologists present his research findings. Statistics were shared that painted a gloomy picture for a tiny baby boy who had had the many complications CJ had. Each terrifying moment in the NICU was represented in those charts. Their research also showed that one of the key factors in a child like CJ surviving and thriving is if they have a “better” parent. They defined “better parents” as parents who educate themselves on what’s happening, engage in the care process, and effectively advocate for their child.
Speech and debate is what taught us those skills to be better parents. Through high school and collegiate policy debate, we had learned to ask questions and process volumes of information quickly. We learned how to research new and complicated subjects and discern credible research. Debate tournaments taught us to push through when we were exhausted and how to focus on the next challenge, regardless of how rough the previous round had been.
Statistically, I should have buried my child. Speech and debate gave me the skills to advocate for my child and myself. I was privileged to have doctors who heard my pain and took it seriously. I was blessed to be near a medical facility with national experts on HELLP and with a world class NICU. My husband and I were lucky that we had careers that gave us the time and flexibility to do what was best for our child. But most of all, my husband and I were fortunate that we had attended schools that gave us access to speech and debate.
Nicole Wanzer-Serrano is the former Executive Director of the Dallas Urban Debate Alliance. She is currently the Director of Development and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the National Speech & Debate Association.