WATERLOO — UnityPoint Health-Allen Hospital is in the middle of a campaign to improve the outcomes of its tiniest patients.
An upgrade to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is part of the ongoing For Allen For You capital campaign, and babies born prematurely or with complications have already gotten a head start from the Giraffe Incubators now in use in the NICU.
“These beds have become an adjunct to the highest level of care,” said neonatologist Dr. Pankaj Nagaraj, Allen NICU medical director. “We’ve have very good outcomes with these babies. Clinically, they improve so dramatically. All in all this has been a revelation for us.”
Several years ago, Allen Hospital could treat babies born as early at 34 weeks gestation. Now, the Giraffe Incubators and other advancements in the Allen NICU have made it possible to care for babies delivered as early as 30 weeks gestation. A full-term pregnancy is 40 weeks.
The state-of-the-art incubators help monitor and control several elements critical to a premature infant’s recovery and development — temperature, weight, moisture, noise and touch.
“It has three modes of temperature control on the baby,” Nagaraj said. “This is so critical because cold stress for a baby can be very devastating. With this you can keep the baby’s temperature stable. This was not possible with the old radiant warmers. When the baby’s temperature stays constant, it normalizes all the processes in the baby’s body and helps with recovery and healing.”
Additionally, the air inside the incubator is humidified to help keep the baby hydrated.
“The more premature they are, the faster they lose moisture from skin and secretions. With this we can retain all that moisture in the baby to not only prevent dehydration but also weight loss. The more weight they, lose the more devastating it is for their growth,” Nagaraj said.
Because weight loss is so dangerous for babies born too early, the Giraffe Incubator has a built-in scale to show caregivers the infant’s weight at all times. Before, the infant would need to be moved to a scale and a separate warmer.
“Unnecessary movement of the baby stresses them out,” said nurse Amanda Wagner, Allen’s NICU clinical educator. “We want to keep their temperature stable and their heart rate normal.”
Additionally, the Giraffe’s scale is accurate within 10 grams and takes into account breathing and feeding tubes, umbilical lines and other medical equipment.
“It gives you the true weight of the baby,” Nagaraj said. “This is a tremendous improvement. It helps me as a physician to get optimum fluids. These are immature babies, and you have to optimize everything.”
Part of the that optimization also includes keeping environmental noise to a minimum. When a baby is startled by sounds, heart rate and blood pressure rises. There’s a hood on the Giraffe Incubator that, once in place, seals out all noise.
“The baby thinks it’s back in the womb,” said David Sparks, president of the Henry B. Allen Family Foundation, which provided funds for three of the seven Giraffe Incubators at Allen.
The incubators cost about $80,000 each. The foundation’s board had no hesitation in agreeing to the NICU’s request.
“If you want to pursue the right result for this child and family, funding for the NICU is the right thing. Our board had no trouble doing that,” Sparks said. “If Allen weren’t doing what they do, who would have to go to Iowa City? Parents would have to take time off work, travel. All of that is very stressful and goes away from the direction of goodness and the vision of the foundation. With this, the baby is right here. Mom and dad can stay in the room and develop a health relationship with a healthy baby. It doesn’t take long to see the value.”
Allen Hospital delivers more than 1,000 babies a year. In 2014, 106 babies were treated in the NICU. In 2015, 110 babies needed the extra care.
“The need is certainly there,” Parks said.
Nagaraj is excited about the future improvements and expansion of the NICU, which will include three additional Giraffe Incubators.
“We expect every pregnancy to be perfect and go well, but if it doesn’t you have a very skilled team here to provide the best of care,” he said. “We are doing significant good work that changes lives in the community and I think it’s only going to get better and stronger.”