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Going from Great to Exceptional

Innovations in equipment and technoloy are transforming the delivery of care for B.C.’s tiniest, sickest babies at BC Women’s Hospital; public and private support is vital

With over 7,000 babies born annually, BC Women’s Hospital is primarily a maternity hospital specifically organized to deal with high-risk pregnancies and babies requiring specialized intensive care, as parents whose newborns have been saved by the facility’s 60-bed Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) will attest.

But as the only hospital in B.C. with a provincial mandate to meet the comprehensive healthcare needs of women, BC Women’s is also a key referral centre for breast screening and diagnostics, and a teaching facility for medical students.

Research undertaken by its world-class doctors is shedding new light on diseases such as cervical cancer and issues such as fetal brain development, and medical innovations spurred by research benefit other hospitals across the province and beyond. Some research has produced startling results: BC Women’s Oak Tree Clinic has achieved a zero transfer of HIV from mother to baby for pregnant women treated by the Clinic’s maternity care specialists.

Despite its remarkable record of success, BC Women’s faces real challenges. New technology is crucial to saving lives—especially in the NICU—but a lot of equipment is nearing the end of its lifespan. “While the government is the primary funder for all hospitals, donations from the private sector and individual donors make it possible for BC Women’s to remain at the forefront of newborn intensive care,” says Laurie Clarke, CEO of the BC Women’s Hospital + Health Centre Foundation. “The purchase of new equipment and technology, and investments in education and research help to ensure the hospital is able to fulfil its specialized mandate.”

Since coming to BC Women’s three years ago, Clarke and her colleagues determined that $17 million is needed for a first phase of funding for the NICU. The $10 million raised to date has gone to the purchase of new, state-of-the-art incubator units, ventilators and other specialized equipment.

“As the provincial hub for newborn care and newborn intensive care, BC Women’s expertise impacts every single premature and critically-ill baby born in British Columbia,” says Dr. Jan Christilaw, president, BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre. “The Newborn ICU Campaign will help babies and families today, and for generations to come.”

Clarke acknowledges it may take some time to raise the remaining $7 million, as well as another $6 million for a second phase focused on training and support. But among the 21 men and women who comprise the Foundation’s Newborn ICU Campaign Cabinet, there’s an almost palpable determination to achieve this ambitious goal sooner than later.

The Cabinet is chaired by CTV News at Six anchor Tamara Taggart, who said she was eager to take on that role right from the start. “I said yes right away—but I don’t come alone, I come with CTV Vancouver,’ she explains. “When I came aboard as cabinet chair, I came with their full endorsement.”

The cabinet is a powerhouse of business and industry leaders. “It’s significant that we’ve attracted such a wide range of professionals, including one exceptionally busy CEO who doesn’t have children himself, but still spends any spare time he can helping us, because he believes this matters,” says Taggart, referring to Robin Sylvester, president and CEO of Port Metro Vancouver.

Taggart says it’s easy to understand why these diverse professionals would be keen to support BC Women’s. “When I first visited the NICU, every bed was occupied and the place was full of parents and care providers,” she recalls. “This is supposed to be the happiest time of a parent’s life, but instead what I saw was worry and fear: people desperate for their babies to live, and desperate for the doctors to make it so. You can’t come away from that unaffected.”

The medical acumen at BC Women’s notwithstanding, Clarke was attracted to work for the hospital because of the human factor. “The caring environment here goes far beyond what you’d expect from a health-care facility,” she says. “Despite how busy care providers are, every patient is cared for as if she’s the only patient at that moment.”

An example of the care providers’ skill and empathy is the case of baby Sior, who in 2010 was born four months too early and soon went into life-threatening distress. For 12 agonizing minutes, the NICU team struggled to resuscitate him, beginning an ordeal that lasted five months and included surgery; blood transfusions; antibiotics; x-rays, ultrasounds and eye tests; tubes, needle pokes and masks; and at the end, relief and laughter as Sior finally went home. Today, he’s a happy and active toddler.

No less of an ordeal was suffered by Mari Shimada and Sean Muggah, who turned to the hospital for help when it was determined that Mari’s 19-week twin pregnancy was very likely to terminate. “The only option was an operation that had a very small probability of success,” recalls Muggah.

Over the next nine weeks, obstetricians and other care providers with expertise in high-risk pregnancies took every step to increase the chances of sustaining Mari’s pregnancy as she remained on bed-rest in the hospital’s Evergreen antepartum ward.

“We were amazed by the continuity and quality of care, with vital contribution and support provided by doctors, nurses, administrators and even the cleaning staff,” says Muggah. “Our twins, Elizabeth and Isla, were born on April 23, 2013 at just under 28 weeks, with almost 20 people in the delivery room. Both Isla and Elizabeth were suffering from a variety of complications associated with extreme prematurity, and for the next two and a half months that same high level of medical care continued in the NICU, with the result that we have two wonderful, healthy daughters at home today.”

Muggah’s experience has made him an outspoken advocate of the hospital’s services. “Prior to Mari being treated at the hospital, we would pass it frequently and not give it much thought,” says Sean Muggah. “But the level of care and professionalism we received was overwhelming, and Mari and I are proud that such a centre of excellence operates in B.C.. It needs to be cultivated.”

Taggart senses that a new public awareness of the value of BC Women’s is brewing. “Many people don’t know about the NICU, or that it is a BC Women’s Hospital program. However, once people learn that the most critically ill babies in the province come to BC Women’s NICU to receive the specialized care only they can provide, they’re eager to support the campaign,” she says. “Since doing a series of broadcasts about BC Women’s and its NICU I’ve gotten enthusiastic feedback. We’re shining a spotlight on the hospital and its patients again throughout the week leading up to Mother’s Day—we’ll have some amazing stories to tell.”

“Pregnancy and birth seem easy to deal with until something goes wrong, then suddenly it’s a life or death situation for not one person, but possibly two, and the highly specialized treatment provided by BC Women’s Hospital becomes vital,” says Clarke. “Our donors tangibly show their appreciation for this great hospital, and can be our greatest champions. I am hopeful that we’ll be celebrating the success of the campaign, and all the wonderful things it will enable, in the very near future.”