Lexi, daughter of Amy and Quentin Sampson of Noblesville, near Indianapolis, spent the first eight weeks of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit. She was born in June at just 1 pound and 11 ounces.
“Lexi [was] premature at 24 weeks and six days,” Amy says. That’s less than two-thirds into a full-term pregnancy. While it’s a scary experience, Amy says the NICU team at highly rated Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health North in Carmel, north of Indianapolis, have done their best to provide support. “The nurses seem to really care for our children, which helps us know they are in great hands,” she says, adding that Lexi’s older brother Jaxon was born premature in August 2012 and was in Riley’s NICU for six weeks. Both babies are doing well now.
Annually in Indiana, about 8,000 babies — or 9.5 percent of all babies born in the state — are delivered premature, or low weight, many requiring admittance to the NICU, according to the Indiana State Department of Health. NICU teams provide constant medical monitoring of these babies, offering respiratory support, intravenous nutrition, oxygen therapy, antibiotics, and phototherapy — a form of light therapy used to combat jaundice.
Most NICUs also offer a wide range of services to put parents at ease. “We have a supportive nursing, medical and respiratory therapy staff, as well as social workers, psychological services, and case managers to help parents daily,” says Denise Hartman, director of Neonatal Services at highly rated Community Hospital North.
Jennie Gilmour, clinical manager of the NICU at Riley, says the average length of stay for a newborn is about two weeks, but duration can vary. “We often see premature babies that have respiratory distress, feeding problems, temperature instability, low blood sugar and the potential for infection,” she says. The NICU team cares for the baby until its functions are strong enough to operate independently and the baby is close to average weight.
“Our goal is to get pre-term infants home on or just before their due date,” Hartman says. “For example, if a baby was born eight weeks premature, we would hope to get the baby home in six-to-seven weeks.”
NICU teams also provide critical care in unique crisis situations. Jamie Dunn, a NICU nurse at highly rated St. Vincent Health, recalls taking care of one baby who was born with a hole in his diaphragm. He needed cardiac and respiratory machines to support his heart and lung function. “After months in the NICU, he was finally able to go home,” Dunn says. “A year later, he is doing wonderfully. He’s a true example of the amazing work the NICU team can deliver even when a crisis is completely unexpected.”
Joy Davis, a spokeswoman with Riley, says parents can expect to pay anywhere between $1,000 to $10,000 each day at the NICU depending on services, but the average cost is approximately $3,000 per day. Most of that is typically covered by health insurance plans after meeting a deductible of between $500 to $7,000. Parents who don’t have health insurance, Davis adds, may be able to get NICU costs covered by Medicaid.
NICU experience: Hope for the smallest patients
As of early August, Amy says Lexi’s bills totaled about $72,000 “and they keep coming.” She expects to pay $2,000 toward her daughter’s bills and $2,000 toward her own hospital bills, with insurance covering the rest.
A stay can not only be financially stressful, but emotionally draining as well, which is why NICU staff offers family support services. “Our child life specialists provide activities, such as scrapbooking and family meals, for the parents and siblings,” Gilmour says. “Room service meals are available for nursing moms. Also, we have a dedicated group of physical and occupational therapists to assist in giving our patients the best positioning and movement exercises to optimize their developmental outcomes.”
As of late August, Lexi weighed about 6 pounds — a weight gain of more than 4 pounds since birth. Amy says Lexi continues to impress doctors, and the family expected to bring her home in September.
“The NICU staff are very kind and always take the time to explain things,” Amy says. “The most difficult part of the experience is the feeling of helplessness that comes from not being able to help your child during this time of need. The most rewarding experience is watching your child grow and develop after such a difficult start.”
— Additional reporting by Brittany Paris and Michael Schroeder