How BC Women's Newborn ICU delivers full-sized critical care to BC's tiniest patients.

In a perfect world, every mom would deliver a perfectly healthy baby at term – but life is unpredictable. For some, the joy of birth can quickly turn to fear as families find themselves faced with a premature baby, or a desperately sick newborn barely clinging to life.

It’s a devastating start for both babies and their parents. Thankfully, it is in this unique medical arena – providing world-class care to critically ill babies – that BC Women’s Hospital’s Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) has made its reputation.

BC’s main hub for the delivery of critical neonatal care, the NICU has both the state-of-the-art technology and the specialist doctors and nurses on staff to provide the highest level of intensive care to the province’s sickest babies. Dr. Brian Lupton (pictured), director of the NICU, says the unit has beds to accommodate 60 infants, with more than half of these acute-care beds dedicated to providing one-on-one or two-to-one intensive care.

Round-the-clock care

The NICU’s patients come from throughout BC to be treated for everything from jaundice, hypoglycemia and feeding problems to respiratory distress, infection and surgical problems.

“Newborns only come to our NICU when they have problems of such magnitude that they can’t stay with their moms,” says Lupton. “But there is a spectrum of illness. Unfortunately, there are always those babies requiring extreme levels of support, with life-threatening illness due to intercurrent illness at birth, congenital anomalies or being born premature. 

On this particular day, neonatal nurse Cheryl Podgornik, (pictured above, right) a 20-year veteran of the NICU, is monitoring the vital signs of premature baby boy. Weighing in at just 900 grams, his hand could fit neatly into a thimble. He sleeps peacefully despite the constant hum of medical equipment, soft voices, and the spray of tubes and IVs attached to his tiny body. Like most of his fellow patients, his life is fragile, requiring top-tier medical care to survive.

Consistent caregivers

Babies who arrive at the NICU requiring stabilization are first admitted to one of two procedures rooms where they are intubated and umbilical arterial and venous lines are inserted to administer medications. The babies are then moved to one of the acute care beds for nursing care. Here, families are invited to choose the primary nurse who will follow their child through to discharge from hospital.

The comprehensive care these babies receive takes into account both their medical and emotional needs. As handling can be stressful for a very sick baby, nurses cluster their care – feeding, bathing, weighing, changing diapers and dealing with IVs that need changing – every four to six hours. The babies vital signs as well as IV sites and fluid balances are monitored hourly.

Of course, there’s more to healing than medicine, which is why cuddle time with mothers, fathers and families is not only encouraged, it’s written right into the care plan.

Supporting families

As well as helping babies heal, the NICU staff also actively support families during what’s often an emotionally charged and stressful time.

“In addition to focusing on the needs of the newborn, we know that families have needs that require skilled intervention and communication from all who work in the NICU,” says Lupton. “Providing care with compassion and empathy is an important component of what we do.”

Throughout the NICU, parents can be seen keeping quiet vigil at their babies’ bedsides – feeding them, talking to them or simply cuddling them, sometimes with an older sibling at their side.

“This is a family-focused unit,” says NICU nurse Podgornik. “There are few restrictions on visiting hours and we get parents involved as quickly as possible.”

“Family-focused care is critical,” she adds.  “The parents learn to care for their babies and the babies get the loving touch that’s so vital to their recovery.”

There’s no question it’s a formula that works. You don’t have to look far in the BC Women’s Hospital NICU to find photos of children who are clearly thriving, and thank-you notes from grateful parents who remember when their babies were sick – and the people and the place that made them better.

By Helena Bryan and Ann Collette