NICU Turns 30

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

Dr. Richard Bell checks up on Sharon Brown and 5-day-old baby Teagan in the NICU.

It’s hard to imagine a time when Solano County didn’t have its bustling Interstate 80, and even harder to envision how and how far critically ill babies were transported before NorthBay Medical Center opened its Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in 1985.

In the early ’70s, Solano County’s sickest infants were kept warm with heated water bottles, loaded into an incubator and then driven over back roads to a hospital in Woodland.

It was a story shared during a special gathering this spring of NorthBay’s NICU pioneers and current leadership. The group compared notes over just how much has changed since the NICU opened its doors 30 years ago. At that time, it only had three beds on the first floor. Today it has 16 beds on the second floor and serves an average of eight babies a day.

As many as 180 infants a year spend their first days in the NorthBay NICU. They receive care from specially trained nurses who have learned how to resuscitate NorthBay’s smallest patients with special equipment, explained Jenny Quinn, R.N. and NICU nurse practitioner.

Barbara Lum, a registered nurse and retired director of Maternity Services for what was then Intercommunity Memorial Hospital was there to tell her stories and share her passion for babies, despite faltering health. She died from congestive heart failure, just days after the meeting.

During the round table discussion, Barbara recalled how she coordinated the earliest parenting courses and helped establish NorthBay’s mission to provide better care for critically ill infants by working to keep them close to home and to their families.

Mary Dickey, R.N., now NorthBay’s director of accreditation and licensure, was hired by NorthBay Medical Center in 1985 to help design the original NICU, partly because of her experience with the NICU at David Grant Medical Center.

Mary later took the reins from Barbara to lead Maternity Services for many years, and remembers developing a transport system, not just to take babies out of Solano County for more critical care, but to bring them to NorthBay for specialized care. “We created the NICU so we could keep sicker babies here, babies who had low birth weight or respiratory problems,” she recalled. “We wanted to keep them close to home so their families could be more involved.”

That was a sentiment echoed by Richard Bell, M.D., neonatologist and medical director of the NICU. “When babies are born 12 weeks early, even if everything goes well with that baby… you’re looking at 45 to 60 days in the hospital. With the stress of that hospital stay, if you’ve got to cross two bridges and find parking, it’s even worse,” he said. “To be able to have those children close to home makes a huge difference for families. This isn’t about medicine, it’s about families and children. It’s about having services available in our community to provide excellent care. That care extends beyond what the baby receives. We take care of the entire family. Everyone around this table is absolutely committed to that.”

It’s all worth it when the children return, as many have for the past 30 years, to the annual reunion for “NICU grads.” This year’s party in May drew the families of nearly 85 children—including several now in their 20s.

Dr. Bell agreed, as he pulled an envelope out of his shirt pocket and shared it with the group. It was a wedding invitation from one of his NICU graduates, whom he cared for some 20-plus years earlier.

“I see those babies that were so small my wedding ring could fit on their wrist. …and now they’re taller they me, they weigh more than me, and they have more hair than me,” he smiled. “It makes it all worth it.”

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