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Comfort and kangaroo care in GBMC's renovated NICU

When Ellen Dew gave birth to her son, Preston, in August 2016, he needed a lot of extra help.

The boy was born in Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson with respiratory distress and seizure activity, Dew said. He was put in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, and administered a treatment called “therapeutic hypothermia” in which the body is cooled to help prevent brain damage from lack of oxygen. Preston was in the NICU for nine anxious days.

But today, the Owings Mills mother said, at nearly 2 years old, Preston is a “happy, healthy boy.”

Dew said to give back, her family for the past two years has participated in GBMC’s Father’s Day 5K to raise money for GMBC’s NICU unit. The race takes place Sunday, June 17.

On Tuesday, Dew and her children, along with others, were invited to a sneak peek of the result of those fundraisers: a shining new $2.4 million NICU, built a floor beneath the original one where Dew had Preston.

The new NICU will open to patients sometime over the next few weeks, a hospital spokeswoman said. A ribbon cutting ceremony is being considered for later in the summer.

Preston toddled through the hallways of the new unit Tuesday, tumbling every few feet and giggling with his 5-year-old sister, Catie.

“It’s so bright and cheery,” Dew said of the new space.

The new unit features 13 rooms, including 10 single and three double patient rooms where babies and their families stay, dimmable lighting and walls in shades of robin’s egg blue and periwinkle. A multicolored speckle pattern lines the front desk. “We wanted something bright, fresh, that made people feel good,” said Kristin Tawinski, nurse manager for the NICU.

The older NICU unit on the floor above is still operating and could, after the new unit opens, be utilized to hospitalize babies closer to going home.

GBMC’s NICU is a Level III facility, according to the hospital website, and can provide care for very small or sick newborns. The unit offers imaging, respiratory support and pediatric surgery.

One of its most important features, Tawinski said, are new kangaroo chairs. The chairs, which lean back, are designed to allow a parent to hold an infant on his or her chest comfortably as “kangaroo care,” or skin-to-skin contact that Tawinski said is beneficial for both parent and baby. Tawinski said the hospital brought two different types of kangaroo chairs into the NICU and had new parents test them, picking the one that would be most comfortable for long periods of time.

Dew said when Preston was in the NICU, she appreciated not only the unit’s care and resources, but its focus on “snuggles and TLC.”

“That family-centered care benefits the healing process,” Dew said.

Another important aspect of the renovation is privacy, Tawinski said.

Unlike the old unit, which has double occupancy rooms with divider curtains, the new unit has mostly single-occupancy rooms with doors. Tawinski said that configuration allows parents more private moments.

Each patient room has a padded window ledge, a monitor and a kangaroo chair. In the one room without a window, a double room that Tawinski said the hospital hopes to use primarily for families with twins, a fake skylight with a clear sky and clouds lights the room blue.

Parents can sleep in their babies’ rooms in the kangaroo chairs, while nurses monitor the baby’s vital signs from outside the room so they do not have to disturb families, Tawinski said.

Each room includes refrigerated breast milk drawers, dimmable lights and outlets to plug in phones.

One in 10 are NICU babies

About one in 10 of the 3,800 babies born annually at GBMC spends time in the NICU, a hospital press release said. The unit serves about 400 babies each year that are born sick or very premature.

Nationally, about 10 percent of babies are born pre-term, which can cause breathing problems and other complications, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Though pre-term births declined between 2007 and 2014, the CDC said, the rate rose in 2015 and 2016.

According to the World Health Organization, less than 10 percent of premature babies die in developed countries like the U.S., but globally it is the leading cause of death for children under 5.

Tawinski said the hospital has seen more babies in the NICU in recent years – possibly, she said, because women are having children later in life, raising the risk for complications. The CDC said in a 2016 report that preterm births are higher among the oldest and youngest mothers.

On average, Tawinski said the hospital has 13 patients in the NICU – but on Tuesday, she said, they had about 22.

To meet that need, Tawinski said GBMC plans to use about six units in the old NICU to house babies that are almost ready to go home.

A press release said that the hospital is about halfway to raising the $2.4 million that went into the NICU renovation. The hospital is hoping to raise the full amount by the end of the year, a spokeswoman said.

To help GBMC get closer to that goal, Dew said she will be participating in the hospital’s 30th annual Father’s Day 5K. Registration for the race costs between $30 and $40, and same-day registration starts at 6:30 a.m. on the GBMC campus in Towson. A spokeswoman said it typically has about 800 participants.

Dew said she continues to support the NICU at the 5K because they did not just treat Preston — they got to know him.

“I’m so grateful,” she said.

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