A Life: Kelly A. Brogan; ‘She provided so much more’

  • Midwife Kelly Brogan, right, comforts Kate Griffin and her daughter Rosie following her birth at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in an undated photograph. (Courtesy photograph) Courtesy photograph

  • Kelly Brogan and Bill Wernik were married on Aug. 3, 1991, at Brogan's parents' house on Lake Wampanoag in Ashburnham, Mass. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • Kelly Brogan while working at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in a circa 2000s photograph. Brogan delivered thousands of babies in her two decades as a midwife in the Upper Valley. (Courtesy photograph) Courtesy photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/11/2021 8:02:36 PM
Modified: 7/11/2021 8:02:38 PM

LEBANON — Kelly Brogan delivered thousands of babies in her two decades as a midwife in the Upper Valley, but the baby catching is only part of what her patients remember about her.

Claremont resident Samantha Torres served as a surrogate mother for another family in 2014. A few days following the birth, Torres’ second of three with Brogan’s assistance, Brogan called Torres to check in.

She asked, “Hey Mama, how’s your heart?”

Brogan’s call came as Torres was sobbing and struggling to get out of bed. Brogan had correctly predicted that even without a baby to feed, Torres’ hormones were surging as her milk came in.

“She provided so much more than OB-GYN” care, Torres said.

Brogan, who died in February at the age of 59 following a series of strokes, served women and families with tough love and humor first in Guam and then at three Upper Valley hospitals, New London Hospital, Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon and finally Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, also in Lebanon.

Her love and care also extended to her family, human and feline, as well as gardens at the home she shared with her husband, Bill Wernik, in East Alstead, N.H.

Brogan was born in Gardner, Mass., on March 30, 1961, the fourth of five children of Thomas and Pauline Brogan. Her father was an electrician and her mother a registered nurse.

The family spent summers at a lake house on Lake Wampanoag in Ashburnham, Mass. They enjoyed swimming, canoeing and trips for ice cream and to amusement parks, her younger brother Kevin said. Through those summers, as well as her experiences as a Girl Scout, Brogan developed a love of the outdoors.

“She was a woods person,” Kevin said.

Though Brogan had painful rheumatoid arthritis from an early age that affected her movement, she didn’t let the pain slow her down.

“That made her a stronger person,” he said.

Her fondness for young people was evident from an early age when, as a Catholic schoolgirl, she could be found dressing up as the Easter bunny and helping little ones dress up for school plays, Kevin said.

“She just loved the children,” he said.

Brogan followed in her mother’s footsteps to become a nurse. While she was still at Gardner High School, Brogan worked as nurse’s aide at the nursing home where her mother was employed.

“She was there for people,” Kevin said. “She was a people person. My mother was the same way.”

Brogan earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Fitchburg (Mass.) State College (now University) in 1984. She met Wernik, who is also a nurse, at a conference during their training. He went to Keene (N.H.) State College.

“She picked me up at a conference,” he said. “I was an easy pick up.”

They were both drawn to nursing for similar reasons: They wanted to help people, and they could always find work and take that work on the road if they liked, Wernik said.

Upon graduation, the couple worked the night shift at Brattleboro (Vt.) Memorial Hospital and then put their skills to use in the Marshall Islands, serving as clinical nurse trainers in a hospital setting.

“It made us much more adaptable to situations,” Wernik said. “You couldn’t run to the storage room and pull out the exact thing you needed. You had to figure things out.”

They saved up during their two or so years there and then set off to travel the world, stopping in Hawaii, Micronesia, Singapore, Nepal, India, Italy and Spain before they started to run out of money and booked flights back to New England.

Upon their return, Brogan became a school nurse in Bellows Falls, Vt. and earned a master’s degree in education. The couple, who didn’t have children, brought a cat back with them from the Marshall Islands and thus began their series of feline companions. They often had as many as eight at once at their East Alstead home, which Wernik, who originally trained as an electrician, first began building in 1978.

There, Brogan tended a garden filled with flowers and vegetables. They worked to finally finish the home by 2007, but in the 1980s they just had a telephone and used propane to power their refrigerator and lights, Wernik said. Before they had electricity, they lived with jugs in their cars to fill up with water wherever they went, he said.

After about five years as a school nurse, Brogan decided it was time for a change and earned a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996. Though she had initially intended to focus on family practice, she met some midwives early on who changed her direction.

“It turned out to be one of the best things she ever did,” Wernik said.

From Pennsylvania, the couple once again went abroad. Brogan took her new skills to Guam. Wernik, who had gotten into the field of oncology in Philadelphia, was able to help establish a new cancer center while they were there.

Though they might have stayed longer, they returned to New England in 2000 when Brogan’s father was sick with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and she helped care for him. Brogan took a job at New London Hospital and worked there until the birthing center there closed, due to operating deficits, in 2002.

From there, she landed at APD, where she remained until that birthing center closed and APD merged obstetrical services with DHMC.

“She was a wonderful colleague,” said Laurie Foster, a recently retired APD midwife who worked with Brogan for about 16 years. “She was a very, very passionate midwife.”

Foster credited Brogan with being a “great advocate for mothers and babies and families” and also for approaching her work with a “great sense of humor” and “tough love when that was needed.”

In 2004, Plainfield resident Cara Nelson went into labor with the first of her five children, all delivered by Brogan, a week early. Nelson threw up from nerves, she said.

“It was my first baby and Kelly knew what I needed,” Nelson said. “I can be pretty stubborn and she matched my stubbornness.”

Though Brogan wasn’t on duty for all of Nelson’s subsequent deliveries, she came in anyway.

“I was spoiled,” Nelson said.

As the family grew, the older siblings came in to visit the new babies in the birthing center.

“She just loved them,” Nelson said. “She loved them all.”

While APD’s birthing center felt like Cheers bar “where everybody knew your name,” moving to DHMC was like “going into an airport bar where nobody knows your name and nobody cares,” said Wernik.

The transition was difficult, but Wernik said Brogan had found her niche within the new arrangement. She still got to see patients for visits at APD and was on call for deliveries at DHMC. Aside from DHMC, Gifford Medical Center in Randolph is the only remaining hospital with a birthing center in the Upper Valley.

“She was just playing nice in the sandbox,” said Wernik of Brogan’s time at DHMC. “She did get used to it more and more.”

Brogan’s strength and her ability to see women through challenging births made her seem invincible and made her death in February feel like a shock, Nelson said.

“She was almost like Superwoman to me, I guess,” Nelson said.

Torres, the Claremont mom who served as a surrogate, last saw Brogan for her annual check up in October. Torres planned her pap smears so that she could spend her birthdays with Brogan, she said. She had had a rough year and in spite of the COVID-19 protocols in place last fall, Brogan gave her a hug.

Torres recalled Brogan saying to her: “You need a hug and I’m going to give you what you need.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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