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Hospital unveils improved facility for neonatal care

| Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Laura and Matthew Witt were so grateful for the care their premature triplets received at Magee-Womens Hospital, they wanted to pass on hope to other parents of preemies.

So the couple, both nurses, volunteered for the NICU Parent Advisory Committee, giving solicited advice to hospital officials designing a new neonatal intensive care unit, which was unveiled Tuesday.

The triplets' care couldn't have been any better when they were born four years ago, but now the facilities are, said Laura Witt, a Magee-Womens nurse.

Instead of incubators lined up one after another like cribs in a toy store, the new NICU gives babies and their families 150-square-foot rooms separated by walls to protect them from unwanted noise, light and other disturbances.

Officials at the Oakland hospital boast it is the nation's largest NICU, with private bays with solid walls instead of glass or curtain dividers. Babies will be moved into the new unit Aug. 10.

"We're here to take care of more than just babies; we're here to take care of entire families," said Dr. Jon Watchko, chief of neonatology.

At 31,657 square feet, the new NICU is twice as large as the existing unit, which opened in 1982 but holds the same number of beds -- 63. Fifteen incubators will be in an open unit, separated by curtains and better-suited to handle triplets and larger multiple births, Watchko said.

The family-friendly environment will help babies develop more normally, said Cheryl Milford, neonatal psychologist.

Along with the low-tech improvements, the new NICU will take advantage of high-tech equipment and monitors, which will send a number of alerts should a problem be detected, through audible and visual alarms, cell phones carried by nurses and a central monitoring station.

Nurses will use mobile computers to chart patients' progress, eliminating paperwork and clerical duties.

"It's a change, but the trade-offs for what it means to the family -- everybody buys into the positive aspects of that," Watchko said.

Magee-Womens opened its first NICU, the McKlusky Premature Nursery, in 1962.

Each year, Magee-Womens' NICU cares for about 1,100 newborns. About two-thirds are born prematurely -- as early as 23 1/2 weeks and as small as 1 1/2 pounds. The rest are near full-term babies who have medical problems, Watchko said.

Patients stay an average of two weeks in the NICU; 97 percent to 98 percent survive, he said.

Along with two existing "nesting rooms" used for overnight visits by families when the babies are about to be released, the new unit includes two overnight rooms for families with critically ill babies or for those who need to be nearby for other reasons.

The unit includes Austin's Playroom for siblings of NICU patients. It was established by Mario and Nathalie Lemieux in honor of their son, now 8, who was born prematurely and cared for at Magee-Womens.

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