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GMC stresses need for bigger NICU

Staff Photo: John Bohn Gwinnett Medical Center Neonatologist Dr. Dan Suskin, left, discusses   a Cool-Cap machine that is used to slightly cool the body temperature of a neonatal patient in the neonatal intensive care unit. At right is Fiona Sandler, who is taking a tour as plans are announced for a new neonatal intensive care unit to be built at Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Gwinnett Medical Center Neonatologist Dr. Dan Suskin, left, discusses a Cool-Cap machine that is used to slightly cool the body temperature of a neonatal patient in the neonatal intensive care unit. At right is Fiona Sandler, who is taking a tour as plans are announced for a new neonatal intensive care unit to be built at Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn A simulated neonatal patient fills a newly donated neonatal transport incubator at Gwinnett Medical Center. GMC is planing a new neonatal intensive care unit to be constructed at their Lawrenceville hospital. Prospective donors were recently given a tour of the current neonatal intensive care unit while plans were announced for a new facility.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Michelle Gray, RN, right, the nurse supervisor of Gwinnett Medical Center's neonatal intensive care unit, informs Linda Baily, RN and her son Laurence Baily, left, about the advantages of a newly donated neonatal transport incubator. An informational tour of the GME neonatal intensive car unit was held while is plans for a new neonatal intensive care unit were announced for GMC in Lawrenceville.

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Staff Photo: John Bohn Neonatologist Dr. Leslie D. Leigh discusses his duties in the neonatal intensive care unit at Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville. An informational tour was recently held, as plans were announced for a new neonatal intensive care unit to be constructed at the Lawrenceville hospital.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Gwinnett Medical Center has had a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit -- that area of a hospital in which premature or very sick, unbelievably tiny babies are nurtured and treated -- for about 20 years. Not many people know that, and the ones who do may only have learned it under the most dire of circumstances, by having a child of their own there.

That's a problem, according to Cathie Brazell, a registered nurse and Director of Women and Children's Services at Gwinnett Medical. According to Brazell, people need to know that this treasure sits right here at home in Gwinnett, offering care and treatment for women and for even the sickest of babies, any time it is needed. The Level III (highest level of care), 28-bed NICU at Gwinnett Medical Center has saved the lives of critically ill babies from all over Georgia, by using state-of-the-art technology and employing some of the best physicians and nurses in the field.

The other problem is that the need for this care has far outgrown the facility. According to Neonatologist Dr. Dan Suskin, often NICU babies are placed in other areas of the hospital because there simply is not enough room in the unit.

"They still receive the same level of care, but they are not here with the staff and the rest of the babies," Suskin said. "We just don't have the room."

"We have the best NICU nurses in Atlanta," said Neonatologist Dr. Leslie Leigh. "But we need more space."

More space, and more lifesaving machines that can carry high price tags, like the $80,000 unit called a "cooling cap," which does exactly what the name implies. According to Suskin, the cooling cap lowers a baby's temperature about 2 degrees, but that slight lowering of body temperature can mean the difference between a perfectly healthy child and one who might be completely dependent on others for care for the rest of his life, simply because his brain was deprived of oxygen for even a brief time. When the body temperature is lowered, the impact of oxygen deprivation can be lessened or completely eliminated.

To a parent, to a family, and to a child, $80,000 is a small price to pay compared to the profound benefit of having access to that machine. But one machine serves only one child at a time, and the need is great.

A standard incubator costs about $50,000, and it can help sustain a baby weighing about 1 pound to a healthier weight of 6 or 7 pounds. A machine that increases the breathing rate of a child and delivers nitric oxygen to underdeveloped or injured lungs costs $168 per hour to use. Transport incubators -- those that perform these critical functions for babies being transported to Gwinnett Medical Center from other hospitals -- are very expensive.

About 100 babies per year depend on these technological wonders for their very lives, according to respiratory therapist Robb Niebeling, who uses these transport units to take sick babies from other hospitals to the lifesaving NICU at Gwinnett Medical in a critical 6-hour time period.

Brazell, Suskin, Leigh and the entire team at Gwinett Medical Center are passionate about the work that they do, and they are embarking on a 3- to 5-year journey (depending on the level of community support) to do several things. The Women's Pavilion and NICU (both about 20 years old and in need of updating), according to Brazell, are still "about three generations behind some other state-of-the-art facilities in the U.S."

Women's care and the care of babies are intertwined, said the director, and her goal is to improve the level of both at Gwinnett Medical Center.

Everything from the appearance of the facility, to the health care and inpatient services offered to women and babies, to the critical care offered to the tiniest of patients are on Brazell's radar. "We need more room. The talent and skill of this amazing team far exceed the facility we have now."

The nurses and physicians have story after story to share that illustrate the pressing need for expansion of the NICU facility.

"We have the skill and technology, but the real work and healing comes from the hands of the people (here in NICU)," Suskin said. "They touch these babies, they hold them."

Leigh added, "We need private rooms, a place for a family to go and be together with their baby, not just an impersonal room with lots of incubators. Families need to be together."

Perhaps the most pressing voice in the NICU does not come from a doctor or from a nurse or a Director of Services. Perhaps it comes from the incubator in the far corner of the shared room, draped with a cozy handmade blanket. It comes from the impossibly small, 2-pound baby inside, swaddled tightly and whose breathing and other functions that healthy children can take for granted are being sustained and regulated with technology, until she can hopefully someday perform those tasks herself. Her life depends completely on the care and support of others.

The number of babies needing critical care is increasing. The number of women in Gwinnett County requiring women's health services is increasing. With community support, just as with the community support for the Gwinnett Medical Center Open Heart initiative, the burgeoning needs can be met and even exceeded, according to Bazell. Her foundational understanding of women's health care is simply this: A mother, or a child, will heal best when the entire family is involved and nurtured.

For more information on how to support the expansion and improvement of the Women's Pavilion and NICU, visit the hospital's website at www.gwinnettmedicalcenter.org, call 678-312-8500 or email foundation@gwinnettmedicalcenter.org.