New cooling device in Calgary helps babies avoid brain damage

Transporting babies deprived of oxygen at birth to a neonatal intensive care unit in Calgary will soon be safer thanks to a new portable cooling device.

Device lowers temperature from 37 C to 33.5 C for 72 hours

A portable cooling device lowers the temperature of a baby from 37 C to 33.5 C for 72 hours to help prevent brain damage. (CBC)

Transporting babies deprived of oxygen at birth to a neonatal intensive care unit in Calgary will soon be safer thanks to a new portable cooling device.

The Foothills hospital is one of the first facilities in Canada to acquire one and doctors hope it will help prevent brain injuries, as reducing a baby's temperature can prevent damage to brain tissue and promote healing.

The reduction in temperature is called therapeutic hypothermia, and it can help prevent damage to brain tissue and promote healing. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

"The period immediately following birth is critical. We have about a six-hour window to lower these babies' temperatures to prevent neurological damage," said Dr. Khorshid Mohammad, the neonatal neurocritical care project lead who spearheaded the initiative.

"The sooner we can do so, and the more consistent we can make the temperature, the more protective it is and the better their chances of surviving without injury."

Since about 2008, doctors used cooling blankets and gel packs to lower a baby's temperature to 33.5 C from the normal 37 C for 72 hours in order to prevent brain damage.

Stable temperatures easier to achieve

"With those methods, it can be difficult to maintain a stable temperature," said Mohammad.

A $35,000 portable cooling device will make transporting babies safer. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

​About 65 per cent of babies are born outside facilities with neonatal intensive care units (NICU), officials said. 

The new device will be installed on a portable incubator cart that can be dispatched with a care team anywhere in southern Alberta by ground or air.

The newborn would then be taken to the NICU at the Foothills or Alberta Children's Hospital. The facilities will also be the first in the country to monitor babies being cooled with continuous video EEG so doctors can respond to seizures that might not be outwardly visible.

The $35,000 cost of the portable cooling device was covered by a donation from the Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation.

'I think it saved her life'

Katie Kaminski and Curtis de Vries saw first-hand the benefits of cooling after their daughter, Tegan, was born by emergency caesarean section.

Katie Kaminski and Curtis de Vries hold their daughter, Tegan. Doctors used the old method of a cooling blanket and gel packs to transport her to another hospital when she was born. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Doctors discovered Tegan had lost blood and was having trouble breathing, so she was cooled using the old method of blankets and gel packs for the trip from the Peter Lougheed Centre across town to the Foothills hospital where she was kept at 33.5 C for three days.

"I think it saved her life," said Kaminski

"She's a very happy, healthy one-year-old and she might not be walking or anything like that if they hadn't cooled her down.

Doctors initially feared Tegan may suffer from cerebral palsy, said Kaminski

"They told us things like she may have hearing issues and they've followed her up so closely and so far, nothing," she said. "We're very lucky."

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Calgary is one of the first Canadian cities to get a new device aimed at preventing brain damage in newborns. 0:35