New unit at IWK will allow parents to stay by their baby's side

When the IWK's new neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) opens its doors next week in Halifax, it will be the first time all four members of Thomas White's family will sleep in the same room.

$34M redevelopment is transforming the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)

Lori Robinson and Thomas White sit with their son Duncan, who has just been released from the neonatal intensive care unit. His twin, Sullivan, is still being treated. They say having a place to stay in the hospital will relieve a significant stress on the family. (Robert Short/CBC)

When the IWK Health Centre's new neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) opens its doors next week in Halifax, it will be the first time all four members of Thomas White's family will sleep in the same room.

"I find it sort of feels like a hotel for babies," the new father said during a sneak peek of the facility. "It's a community."

White and Lori Robinson welcomed twin boys on Jan. 20. They were born at 28 weeks, and both Sullivan and Duncan were admitted in the NICU.

For 75 nights, their parents have had to say good night, leaving them in the care of the team at the hospital and finding their own accommodations.

"Leaving here, at the end of the day, we're wondering, 'Are we going to get a call tonight? What will we walk into in the morning?'" said Robinson.

White and Robinson, who are from Clyde River, P.E.I., stayed in a hotel initially, but they said they couldn't afford it long-term. They're now staying with cousins in the Halifax area.

Duncan White's parents had to leave every night as he was being treated in the NICU. Now that they're moving into NICU North, he'll be able to stay by his twin brother's side. (Robert Short/CBC)

"It's almost heartbreaking having to leave at night and you're laying there in bed, wondering, 'How is my baby doing?'" said White.

Their family is one of the reasons why NICUs around the world are changing the way babies are treated.

Instead of separating the young patients from their parents, rooms are being built to allow families to stay together. 
On Wednesday, the IWK will open its doors on NICU North, an ambitious overhaul of its site that has been 12 years in the making.

New rooms are much larger

Currently, each baby is being treated in about a 30-square-foot portion of a shared room. The new suites aren't just private; they're 10 times the size.

"We're welcoming families in a way that no one else probably is," said Tanya Bishop, NICU's operations manager.

Bishop and her team have spent years assessing the options in Canada, but they decided to take NICU North one step further and studied a model in Drammen, Norway.

Dr. David Simpson says research shows that having parents involved leads to healthier babies and shorter stays in the NICU. (Robert Short/CBC)

Inside each room, there is a full setup to care for a baby, as well as a suite for the family to stay. They're given a double bed, a closet with a safe, and their own washroom with a shower.

The IWK says these are the first NICU suites in Canada to include private washrooms, basically creating a hotel setting. 

"We need to promote togetherness, nurturing, family," said Bishop.

New rooms should lead to healthier babies, says doctor

Dr. David Simpson, a neonatologist and the medical director of NICU, said research shows that the more involved the parents are in the treatment of a newborn, the better the family does as a whole.

"That leads to babies having more human milk, babies getting more skin-to-skin care, babies having better growth," he said. 

Simpson said this will lead to healthier babies and shorter stays in the unit.

The suites have covered glass doors and special switches to block off the windows if families want privacy and quiet. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

The average stay currently is two weeks, but some families are there for months.

"Probably the two most common questions that I hear when I'm seeing a family before birth is, 'How long will my child be in hospital and where am I going to stay while they're in hospital?' It's always been very difficult in our current model because we often aren't able to answer that question," he said.

"So to actually be able to, when we meet with people now, to be able to tell them your baby will have a place to stay and you will have a place to stay with your baby is just so powerful."

Rooms incorporate smart technology

One of the challenges of new rooms is offering privacy. With family members present it's harder for staff in the unit to monitor their patients, Simpson said, so they spent a lot of time figuring out logistics.

"We need to be monitoring the performance of their heart and their lungs very closely and so they're typically on continuous monitoring for at least a portion of their stay," he said.

If an alarm is triggered, it sends a signal to a nurses' smartphone, which Simpson said will lead to faster response times.

What the rooms have in them

The rooms are also equipped with everything from milk fridges to special sinks with bum-cheek holders that help families bathe their babies.

Rooms without windows have special skylights to mimic clouds in the sky, and every room has artwork.

NICU North has 16 single rooms, two twin rooms and one triplet room, but even that is adaptable. 

The rooms are filled with smart technology, including monitors that send messages to a nurses' smartphone if a baby's condition changes. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

Now that NICU North is ready to launch, work will begin on the second half of the project. NICU South will also be transformed, and is expected to be completed by spring 2019.

Expected price tag is $34M

The entire project is being funded through donations to the IWK Foundation. The redevelopment is expected to cost $34 million.

For Thomas White, it means the stress of logistics will be gone, and he can focus on helping his newborn sons.

"New families coming in, that are coming straight to here, it's going to make their lives so much easier," he said.

"Especially for families away, such as ourselves, it's a huge financial burden trying to find a place to stay in Halifax. And we're lucky to have family here to open our doors for us, but if you don't have any family here, what are you going to do?"

Each room is fitted with a chair for the families and a double bed. In the old NICU, families had to share the big chairs. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

While Duncan has been discharged, his twin Sullivan will have to stay in the NICU a while longer to help his lungs develop.

"Being here is going to be great, we're really excited," said White.

About the Author

Carolyn Ray

Videojournalist

Carolyn Ray is a videojournalist who has reported out of three provinces and two territories, and is now based in Halifax. You can reach her at Carolyn.Ray@cbc.ca