Family. It lies at the heart of Akron Children’s Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
From the relationships among staff, to the way patients are cared for and treated, to the connections built with the hospital’s community of supporters, there is truly one NICU family.
It’s been this way for the past 50 years, since Dr. John D. Kramer, Dr. Carl E. Krill and Dr. Robert T. Stone started the NICU in Akron in 1970. Today, that small unit has grown into almost 200 NICU beds across northeast Ohio. And the impact of these services has transformed generations.
“The NICU is life-changing,” said Grace Wakulchik, president and CEO of Akron Children’s. “It has reduced infant morbidity and mortality, given hope to families and allowed families across the region to celebrate many happy birthdays.”
The 50th anniversary is a time to celebrate the NICU – the differences it has made, the lives it has impacted and the futures that have been shaped as a result of this very special, very critical unit.
When Akron Children’s first opened the NICU doors, the unit itself was a rarity. Very few communities, especially ones the size of Akron, had a state-of-the-art center that cared for infants who urgently needed specialized treatment after delivery. As Anand Kantak, MD, regional staff neonatologist and former director of the division of neonatology, put it, it was a gift – a “jewel” – for the community.
And it has remained one ever since.
Gary Benfield, MD, joined the hospital in 1973 to convert the NICU into a modern unit. The first two decades focused heavily on adopting new technologies and practices, aided by James P. DeMarco, who served as director of nursing at that time, from the usage of the first neonatal ventilators to intravenous feeding methods to discoveries about nutritional needs and more. It also was during this time in 1978 that the hospital built a new 59-bed Level III NICU.
As technology advanced during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, evidence-based practices came into play, with the staff utilizing knowledge and data to transform care. And collaboration became key, from internal multidisciplinary teams to collaborations with other NICUs across the country.
“A team approach to get things done has made the NICU so successful over the years,” said Jennifer Grow, MD, interim director, neonatal medicine. “There are multiple layers of people from various walks of careers – nurses, respiratory therapists, educators, dietitians, physicians and more – all working together for a single goal. It’s very special to our NICU.”
Starting in the early 2000s, the neonatal expertise began expanding into adult hospitals throughout the region – from Canton to Wooster to Warren – as well as the special care nursery at the Beeghly campus in Boardman. “Regional growth enhances our ability to keep our moms and babies together, which can help lead to better outcomes for them as a pair,” said Dr. Grow.
“It also decreases the burden for families with travel and other costs by bringing that important care into the community,” added Christine Young, MSN, MBA, RN, NEA-BC, chief of hospital-based services and chief nursing officer. “Families have access to our neonatal expertise close to home.”
The NICU team also became actively involved in addressing and improving a number of community health problems related to patients. This included issues like infant mortality, infant safety such as safe sleep and injury prevention. Collaboration with the hospital’s maternal fetal medicine program also helped the hospital concentrate on preventative care.
One of the most notable moments in the NICU’s history came in 2015, when the Women’s Board of Akron Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit opened on two floors of the Kay Jewelers Pavilion. Featuring 75 private rooms, with space to expand to 100, it once again put family at the forefront.
“The team really embraced that family concept and leveraged it in every decision they had to make – in both the physical space and the NICU care model,” said Christine. “We moved from an open-bay environment into a new unit with private rooms that took into account everything the baby and family would need.”
Gifts to grow by
Through its history, donors have supported our ongoing efforts to provide the very best care to these fragile infants.
Their support has funded life-saving medical equipment like ventilators and isolettes, as well as training equipment for NICU staff. Donor support has helped fund the construction of new facilities. And it has provided amenities for families, such as special nursing chairs and cameras so that they can always be connected to their child.
Fundraisers like Walk for Babies have raised tens of thousands of dollars. And oftentimes, these gifts and fundraisers are organized by former patient families who want to express their gratitude and give back.
“We respect the philanthropic dollars that we receive very deeply. They’re always given with such sincerity; there’s a weight to that,” said Dr. Grow. “We make sure that we use these dollars on things that can reach out and help many.”
As Akron Children’s looks to the next 50 years for the NICU, the future is bright for families in northern Ohio. An emphasis will be placed on preventative care and new advancements in genomics to determine if infants needing the NICU actually have an underlying genetic disease.
“The good news is we already have the baby as our focus. We understand that so well,” said Dr. Grow. “We’re going to enhance all we know so that not as many babies come here sick and have healthier moms. We’re going to do all we can to drive ourselves out of our own business.”
To the donors: thank you
The exemplary care delivered at Akron Children’s Hospital’s NICU has been buoyed by an important group of people: donors. And many of these donors are former patient families. Here are just a few that we’re honored to recognize as we celebrate the NICU’s 50th anniversary.