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Advanced NICU opens at IWK Health Centre

Krista JangaardHALIFAX – The IWK Health Centre unveiled a new neonatal intensive care unit that puts families first in the care of critically ill babies.

IWK officials visited hospitals in Europe and Toronto to get ideas for the redeveloped NICU. Designers even built a full-sized mockup in a garage at the IWK so it could be readjusted and improved.

The resulting 19-room unit features double sofa beds, optional partitions between baby and family spaces, washrooms with showers and leading-edge technology.

Two rooms have been reserved for twins and one for triplets so the babies don’t have to be separated.

“NICU North marks the beginning of the IWK’s journey from open bay care spaces to single family rooms,” the IWK said in a news release.

Research shows that the most important aspect of newborn attachment is the building of loving reciprocal relationships with their parents, IWK officials said at a media event in the new clinic.

“In 2006, we started to hear as clinicians that there were benefits in having single-room care for our very sick neonates,” Krista Jangaard (pictured), the IWK’s interim president and CEO, told the Halifax Chronicle Herald. “And these were around a better environment for the baby, having the right light, having the right noise levels, protecting from infection but more importantly having a place where parents could be.”

A common situation in the NICU is premature birth, which in the most extreme circumstances would see a baby weigh less than a pound.

“They’d fit in your hand,” Jangaard said.

The NICU also deals with full-term babies who need surgery or have medical conditions such as respiratory problems and infections.

The goal obviously is to help those babies survive “but now we’re talking about not only surviving, we’re talking about, ‘How can we help your growth and development … so it’s the best outcome’,” she said.

NICU operations manager Tanya Bishop, who has led the redevelopment project beginning in 2012, said her team visited hospitals in Toronto, Sweden, Estonia and Norway to glean ideas for the family-friendly concept.

Staff in those units emphasized the importance of family contact and its measurable effect on a baby’s health, as well as practical issues such as a comfortable double-bed and private bathrooms, Bishop said.

“We want families to come live here and sleep here but yet they have to truck out in the middle of the night in their house coat because they have to pee or they’re bleeding heavy or they just (breast) pumped and they need to wash up,” she said. “It just wasn’t going to feel as welcoming to them.”

While making sure the architecture, plumbing (the sinks are even shaped like a baby’s bottom to keep them situated during washing) and other features were appropriate, uppermost in Bishop’s mind were the families she’s worked with over the decades.

“I’ve had the (parent) who said, ‘I kept it together every night until I was in the parking garage, when I knew I didn’t have a place to be,’” she recounted, her professional composure breaking just a little bit as she remembered.

“I thought about a woman who just wanted to sleep with her baby one night before she was going to have say goodbye to her baby the next morning.”

Bishop made sure to get feedback during the planning phase from the families who have haunted the halls of the IWK.

“I feel like I’m so lucky. I’ve had people helping me along the way and I’ve had families’ stories guiding me.”

The $34.5-million critical care redevelopment also will eventually include a new pediatric intensive care unit, known as a PICU, for children up to 16 years.

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