The early months in the life of a premature baby are invariably stressful for everyone involved, and yet the modern marvels of medical technology are allowing more and more preemie and even micro-preemie infants to survive and grow into healthy children.
Anything that can be done to minimize stress and maximize care in the crucial first three to five months of the infants' life can be invaluable, and one of the best ways to improve a difficult situation is to provide the family care that is close to home. During a recent tour of Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Piedmont Fayette Hospital, members of the Kiwanis Club of Fayette County learned just how vital this care is in the community.
Piedmont Fayette’s NICU provides services to high-risk expectant mothers and babies and offers an array of perinatal programs and services to the community including community education, support groups, outreach programs, as well as perinatal, intrapartum, postpartum, newborn and postnatal services. The NICU is staffed with a number of neonatal specialists as well as social workers and respiratory therapists.
"This is where the true magic happens," said Piedmont Fayette's COO, Michael Burnett. "The science today is just incredible around what can be done to help these small babies. It’s the latest technologies coupled with our outstanding nurses, doctors, techs and respiratory therapists that really make miracles happen every day."
Burnett explained that expanding the hospital's Obstetrics (OB) services has been an uphill climb for years, but with each expansion there continues to be a growing need and Piedmont Fayette looks to keep pace. "When I transferred down here [in 2001] we didn't have an OB," Burnett recounted, "We went to the state to get OB services approved and initially it was felt that Fayette didn’t need the service. We fought hard to bring OB services to Fayette County and today we're delivering about 200 babies a month.”
In the early going, Piedmont Fayette could only care for healthy babies and those with relatively less serious medical needs. More difficult or technical treatment needs had to be addressed by other hospitals in the Piedmont network, adding some strain for Fayette County parents who would much rather be a five or ten minute drive from their infant's hospital than thirty minutes or more. Piedmont Fayette has since expanded those services, so that now it has a 15 bed NICU unit and a Women's Services department comprised of a range of specialists and nurses trained specifically to care for preemies and even micro-preemies.
Now, thanks to a recent certificate of need granted by the state, Piedmont hopes to add five additional NICU beds in a 4,000 square foot, $1.3 million expansion of the existing Level III NICU. "We had the NICU expansion of five beds in 2011 and we filled those beds immediately,” stated Tracie Delally, director of women’s services. Delally explained, "I think we opened at the end of September and by around October 6 those beds were filled and we were overflowing. In 2006, in those four months that we had been open, we did 166 deliveries for the year, or about 40 a month. Now we're doing around 200-220 a month. That's a lot of growth in five or six years."
Delally said the preemie baby experience is wholly different than a "well baby," not only for the families and infant but for the nurses and staff who develop a bond with those babies and parents that is "like family." And the needs of families with preemie babies involve much more than the average baby, including specialized education classes and instruction for keeping the baby safe once the baby goes home.
"We also provide educational classes to our families, such as childbirth classes, sibling classes and more, but for the NICU moms and dads we felt there was a huge need to give them a little bit of extra TLC," Delally said. "This is a very stressful time and we want to take really good care of them."
Once a month the hospital holds informational Fragile Beginnings classes, which address various issues in the care of preemie babies, and each class is taught by a specialist in the chosen area. The topics of each class tend to be selected according to whatever needs seem most relevant to the needs of the infants in care at that time, Delally said, and they can provide much needed information and skills, along with some peace of mind.
The extensive care that preemie babies require is a huge endeavor for Delally and her staff, and she credits them for pulling together in recent months as preemie deliveries were unusually high for the hospital. "The win from it all, of course, was the teamwork. Nothing brings a team together like a challenge," Delally said, and recounted some of the figures, "I have the best staff, they love these babies, they love our families here in Fayette County and they're just excellent."
In August, the hospital had 23 admissions to the NICU, with 7 being determined as micro preemies, born at 1 pound 12 ounces or less and after less than 26 weeks gestation. Typical gestation is 40 weeks, and preemie babies are those born after 37 or fewer weeks. "[Micro preemies] will stay with us usually somewhere between 3.5 to 5 months," Delally said, "We become very attached to them and their families."
Delally, who has a warm and upbeat personality, joked that her staff "were kind of wondering where are all these babies coming from?" Between September and October there were a total of 56 NICU admissions. On top of all that, the hospital delivered seven sets of twins.
Delally hopes Piedmont Fayette's capacity can become such that every Fayette family can deliver close to home. Says Delally, “If Piedmont Fayette can expand its NICU unit a little bit more we can provide that many more of the 'miracles' in our community.”