Helping others brings recognition from Oprah

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Carol Sorgen

When Joanie Reisfeld was pregnant more than 20 years ago, she had to endure complete bed rest for two and a half months until her son Zach was born at 30 weeks, weighing just 2 lb., 10 oz.  It was a period of tremendous emotional and physical stress.

So in 1993, the veteran teacher of blind children and part–time realtor founded Better BedRest, Inc., an advocacy, public awareness and volunteer-driven nonprofit that provides support and information to pregnant women who are prescribed bed rest by their physicians or midwives.

Volunteers phone women on bed rest to offer advice and suggestions for coping as well as to tell them about available community resources. Volunteers also help with Better BedRest’s annual fundraising event, which raises money to assist those on bed rest who are in financial difficulty because they can’t work.

Elizabeth Neighoff is one of Reisfeld’s volunteers, who herself spent six months on bed rest while pregnant. After moving back to Maryland from New York, Neighoff heard about Better BedRest and knew she wanted to get involved.

“People don’t understand unless they have been through the same thing,” said Neighoff, who like Reisfeld is an Ellicott City resident. “They think you’re lazy or on vacation!”

Brought to Oprah’s attention

Neighoff felt so inspired by Reisfeld’s efforts on behalf of pregnant women that, when she saw a “call for heroes” on Oprah Winfrey’s website last fall, she dashed off an e-mail extolling the virtues of Reisfeld and talking about the many women Reisfeld’s organization has helped through the years.

“I promptly forgot about it,” said Neighoff of her e-mail. “I didn’t give it a second thought.”

Until this past November, that is, when a representative from the “Oprah” show e-mailed Neighoff asking if she and Reisfeld could come to Chicago and be in the studio audience the following week.

The two women were excited about having the opportunity to see a taping of a show during Oprah’s final season. They also hoped it would bring awareness to the issue they both feel so passionate about.

It wasn’t until Neighoff’s sister mentioned that November was usually when Oprah aired her much-anticipated “favorite things” show that the two began to think there might be more to the invitation than just being recognized for their volunteer efforts.

Still, Oprah’s producers did everything they could to throw the audience off, even telling them that the morning’s earlier taping had indeed been the “favorite things” episode and apologizing that they were there to see Oprah’s “favorite people” show, featuring Dr. Oz, Suze Orman, and Dr. Phil.

“We were a bit deflated for a moment,” Neighoff recalled, “but then told ourselves that, really, the best thing was just being there and meeting Oprah. (Indeed, Neighoff said that after the birth of her child and her wedding, meeting Oprah has been the best thing that has happened in her life.)

The producers did such a good job of fooling the audience that when Oprah came out and eventually gave up the gag, “we all went wild,” said both Reisfeld and Neighoff.

Gifts galore

The wild ride continued for the next hour as the studio audience — entirely made up of “heroes,” those who recommended them and some of Oprah's biggest fans — were showered with gifts, ranging from iPads to Ugg boots to Coach pocketbooks, cashmere lounging outfits, jewelry, gift cards, food…and a newly designed Volkswagen Beetle, due out this September.

Because it was a special show, it continues to air on Oprah’s OWN network.

“It was a humbling and overwhelming experience,” said Reisfeld, adding that the gratitude she receives from the women helped by Better BedRest is all the thanks she ever really needed.

“What all the volunteers do is amazing in and of itself,” she added. “And what Elizabeth did [by recommending me] was both unexpected and unbelievable.”

Reisfeld, who — like Oprah — is 57 (they were born a week apart) has long been an Oprah fan. Through the years she has watched the show and read O, Oprah’s eponymous magazine. “I’m still trying to make sense of it all,” she said. “I sent Oprah a thank you note, but, what do you say to someone who gives you all this?”

Neighoff herself has been no less inspired, first by Reisfeld, and then by the entire Oprah experience.

“When something so unexpectedly joyous can happen to you,” she said, “you come away with a sense of hope and a desire to give even more than you have received.”

For more information on Better BedRest, or to volunteer, call (410) 740-7662, email info@betterbedrest.org, or visit www.betterbedrest.org.