Everything in Rachel's pregnancy pointed to a normal birth. Even so, the unexpected happened; the full-term baby entered the world unable to breathe due to an obstructed airway. A nurse in the Family Birth Center immediately activated an emergency light to alert the nearby NICU. From just down the hall, a team came running – a team with the expertise needed to resuscitate – and save – an infant in crisis.
When an ultrasound revealed triplets, Jason and Ashley couldn't help but be excited, but a little nervous, too. They knew multiple babies carried an increased risk of premature birth. At 30 weeks, Ashley gave birth at Family Birth Center, where four teams assisted: one for Ashley and three NICU teams – one for each baby. Health problems of premature infants vary widely in severity and type, underscoring the need for help at a moment's notice.
Frightening as these scenarios might sound, especially if you're an expectant parent, you need to know two important facts:
1. Nine in 10 births are normal. Most of the time, no help from a team of experts will be needed.
2. For that one baby in 10, expert care is readily available at the NICU.
Located in MeritCare Children's Hospital and next to the Family Birth Center, the expanded NICU now offers care in an all-new setting.
Continued excellence, increased demand
Since the early 1970s, MeritCare's NICU has provided highly specialized, nationally ranked care to thousands of critically ill infants from throughout the region. These infants survive – and thrive – thanks to an advanced level of care including:
- Five board-certified and one board-eligible neonatologists (specialists in the care of premature and ill infants) and three neonatal nurse practitioners, ensuring 24/7 NICU coverage.
- A complete team of specifically trained professionals: neonatal intensive care nurses, neonatal therapists (respiratory, physical and occupational), a social worker, a pediatric pharmacist, a pediatric nutritionist and others.
- State-of-the-art technology complemented by in-depth knowledge.
- The availability of MeritCare Children's Hospital pediatric specialists.
In recent years, the number of babies needing to be cared for in the NICU has increased, prompting the need to expand the 26-bed unit. "Certainly we needed more space, which our new 32-bed unit gives us, but we also needed a setting more conducive to family-centered care. It helps everybody – babies, families and staff," says neonatologist Stephen Nelson, MD, medical director of the NICU.
The expanded, renovated NICU incorporates environmental conditions known to help babies heal – lighting and sound, for example. Premature infants cared for in a quieter, lower-light setting experience better sleep, decreased stress response, greater psychological stability, better feeding rhythms and increased average daily weight gain. "More and more, we're learning that environmental factors can have a significant impact on medical outcomes and length of stay," says Dr. Nelson. "Our new NICU reflects these enlightened approaches, ultimately creating a healing environment for babies and their families."
The family perspective
MeritCare's new NICU provides more space for babies and greater privacy for families. Rather than one open room, the re-designed NICU is divided into "pods" – semi-private areas where baby and family can be together in their own quiet space, away from the activity of the rest of the unit. "It's really the best of both worlds: Families have a more private area where they can be with their baby, but at the same time, the team can move quickly from one area to the next to deal with emergencies. In intensive care, the team approach is key," says Dr. Nelson.
A calmer, quieter unit is achieved in other ways, too, including conveniently located equipment, supplies and technology. "Our new wireless computer system is a good example. We can stay up-to-date on the latest test results – right at the patient's bedside," says Dr. Nelson. "Wireless also provides a wonderful tool for educating parents. We can show accurate diagrams on the computer rather than relying on quick pencil sketches." The NICU's new remote monitoring system allows nurses to track the vitals of the infant in their care even when they're not right at the bedside.
Other features appreciated by parents: cabinets where they can keep their belongings, refrigerators for breast milk, comfortable recliners in each pod, adjustable lighting, and enhanced security measures to ensure safety.
What matters to babies
With years of experience in neonatal intensive care nursing, Sharon Spittler, NICU patient care manager, easily steps into the "booties" of premature infants, listing the features they appreciate about the new unit: "My mom and dad have space to be with me, and they don't feel like they're in the way. I like the quiet and not having bright lights in my eyes 24 hours a day – it's more like where I was. Most of all, I like that mom, dad and me can be together comfortably, like a family. They can hold me, talk to me, sing to me, read to me – just like if we were at home."
Speaking for herself, Spittler adds, "I'm especially excited by what we can offer to families. They come here during a crisis in their lives and yes, we can provide the high-level medical care needed, just as we've always done, but now we can offer it in a welcoming, supportive environment."
The NICU completion marks the final phase of the MeritCare Children's Hospital renovation. "The Children's Hospital – including the NICU renovation – really was built on the tremendous generosity of the community," says Dr. Nelson. "They've made this long-standing dream come true for us. We express our sincere thanks."