The Importance of Self-Care for NICU Parents

Having a hospitalized child can be scary and stressful for parents, especially when that child is a newborn. Between raising a family, working and coping with a hospitalized infant, self-care is often not the first thing that comes to mind for a parent.

In this episode of CHOC Radio, we speak with Karina  Ousley, a clinical social worker in CHOC’s  neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), Diana Hurtado, coordinator for the March of Dimes NICU Family Support program at CHOC, and Marla Dorsey, patient- and family-centered care coordinator, about the importance of NICU parents practicing self care.

CHOC Radio theme music by Pat Jacobs.

Learn what to expect when your baby is in the NICU

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Private Rooms in CHOC’s New NICU Help Parents Stay Close to Their Babies

Parents now will only be steps away from their babies receiving intensive care in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at CHOC Children’s Hospital.

choc nicu
Private rooms in CHOC’s new NICU help parents stay close to their babies.

Today, we opened our new NICU with 36 all private rooms.

The 25,000-square-foot unit nearly triples the size of our previous Level 4 NICU, which included an open layout that grouped patients in pod-style beds.

The new unit, located on the fourth floor of the Bill Holmes Tower, creates a homey atmosphere with sleeping quarters and storage space outfitted in warm colors and wooden accents to help parents feel more comfortable while their infants receive highly specialized care for extended periods of time.

“CHOC is proud to offer private rooms to our smallest patients and their parents,” said Dr. Vijay Dhar, medical director of CHOC’s NICU. “No one’s vision of parenthood includes a NICU stay, but our new unit will provide parents with the space and privacy to get to know their new baby, and reassurance that they’ll be nearby while their newborn receives the highest level of care.”

Private NICU rooms are a new standard for improved patient outcomes. Benefits for babies cared for in single-family rooms include higher weight at discharge and more rapid weight gain. Also, they require fewer medical procedures and experience less stress, lethargy and pain. Researchers have attributed these findings to increased maternal involvement.

A private-room setting provides space and privacy sought by parents to breastfeed, practice skin-to-skin bonding, and be more intimately involved in their baby’s care. Private rooms allow parents to stay overnight with their newborn, and give staff more access and interaction with the family and patient.

In addition to private rooms, the new space includes other features that will enhance patient care. Should an infant need a sudden surgical procedure, three rooms within the unit can quickly be converted into space for surgeries. The unit will also include a life-saving extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) unit. Rooms that adjoin can be used to accommodate triplets.

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Adjoining rooms, such as this room designed for twins and the private room next door, in the CHOC NICU can accommodate triplets.

Safety features include same-handed rooms, where equipment is positioned in the same location among all rooms to reduce human error; room-adjacent nursing alcoves; and an in-unit nutrition lab for the preparation of breast milk and formula.

This new unit also features a family dining space, a room dedicated for siblings, a lactation room and other amenities to ensure the comfort of the entire family.

For several decades, we’ve had the privilege of serving infants requiring the highest level of care. With the unit’s opening, CHOC’s neonatal services now include 72 beds at CHOC Orange and the CHOC Children’s NICU at St. Joseph Hospital, and 22 beds at CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital. In addition, a team of premier CHOC neonatologists care for babies at hospitals throughout Southern California.

A suite of specialized services comprises the CHOC NICU: the Surgical NICU, which provides dedicated care to babies needing or recovering from surgery; the Small Baby Unit, where infants with extremely low birth weights receive coordinated care; the Neurocritical NICU, where babies with neurological problems are cohorted; and the Cardiac NICU, which provides comprehensive care for neonates with congenital heart defects.

The CHOC Children’s Foundation has raised $4,381,984 toward the new NICU, including lead gifts from the Argyros Family Foundation, Credit Unions for Kids and philanthropist Margaret Sprague.

Take a virtual tour of our new NICU

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Meet CHOC NICU Graduates

As we prepare to celebrate the opening of our all-private-room NICU, say hello to a few graduates of the CHOC NICU.

Dylan & Payton Law

Dylan, age 9, and his younger sister Payton, age 7, were both born 6 weeks premature and cared for by the doctors and nurses of the neonatal intensive care units at both CHOC Children’s and CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital. Their mom McKenzie shares a thank you to their care teams.

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My family will forever be grateful for the blessings CHOC has given us― our children. Not only did Dr. Hanten save Dylan’s life, but all the nurses, doctors, and staff at CHOC took incredible care of Dylan, giving him strength and providing unforgettable emotional support for our family during a terribly scary time. Two years later those same doctors and nurses took care of his little sister Payton, who also spent a month in the NICU. They treated us like family, not just patients. They calmed our fears, held our hands, and loved our babies. CHOC has a special team of angels here to carry our little ones for us when we needed them the most.

When Dylan was born, doctors and nurses swarmed the delivery room. The doctors administered several doses of epinephrine to Dylan, but he didn’t breathe on his own for 22 minutes. They finally heard a faint heartbeat, but told us the likelihood of Dylan making it through the night was uncertain. At 2 days old he was transported via ambulance to CHOC in Orange, where we found out that he had brain damage. It was devastating to hear that our son may not walk, talk or eat on his own. Today, Dylan is a happy, kind, and compassionate little 9-year-old. He has ataxic cerebral palsy and struggles daily with his hands shaking, but that doesn’t stop him from enjoying school, Jujitsu, playing with his little sister, going to church, doing art projects, and playing outside. -Mackenzie Law

Noah Wenrick


Nine hours after Noah was born, a nurse noticed something was off during a routine check-up, and soon the family was sent to the NICU. Noah was diagnosed with a lung infection and stayed in the NICU for almost two weeks. His mom Ashlie pens a thank you note to his care team.

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A huge thank you from the Wenrick family to the whole CHOC NICU team for all that you do every day! You made us feel like family while Noah was in the NICU. Being new parents it was scary for us, but you helped us understand every step up to the day Noah got to go home! Now he’s a healthy and active 3-year-old. -Ashlie Wenrck

Ryan McLeod


You first met Ryan, a graduate of CHOC’s small baby unit, in November during #PrematurityAwareness Month. Look at him now! Ryan is a happy-go-lucky boy who recently celebrated his first birthday with a trip to Disneyland. At his Mickey Mouse-themed birthday party for family and friends, his parents set up a CHOC Walk station and encouraged their loved ones to join Ryan’s Sidekicks, their first-ever CHOC Walk team. Ryan’s dad says, “The way my wife and I look at things after going through this experience is that we want as many people and possible to gain awareness and support the CHOC NICU and their exceptional Small Baby Unit.”

Austin, Michaela & Caden Shay


Triplets Austin, Michaela and Caden were born a day shy of 31 weeks and spent 80 days in the neonatal intensive care unit at CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital. Their mom Jennifer, a clinical nurse at CHOC at Mission, shares a thank you for her co-workers who cared for her children.

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On behalf of my entire family, I would like to thank the doctors and nurses that took care of our triplets at CHOC at Mission in the fall and winter of 2009. Austin, Michaela and Caden thrived with the tender loving care provided by the staff. Born a day shy of 31 weeks, Austin weighed 3 lbs. 9 oz., Michaela weighed 3 lbs. 3 oz., and Caden weighed a whopping 2 lbs. 0.5 oz. Despite my nursing knowledge, I was treated first and foremost as a mom. The nurses, doctors, and staff were always very professional in addition to being extremely considerate and attentive to our needs.

We cannot thank you enough for what you have given our family. We truly believe that our children― Caden in particular― would not be here today without the care they received in the NICU. It is because of the dedication of the CHOC at Mission NICU staff that we have three relatively healthy 7-year-olds at home today. What a happy and crazy home it is! Though we can never repay you for all that you have done for our family, we wish to thank you from the bottom of our hearts. You are all honorary aunts and uncles! Without the dedication of this team, I would not be the mommy of four that I am today. You have blessed our family beyond measure.     -Eternally grateful, Jennifer Shay

Willow Dee


After a healthy pregnancy, Willow was born just after 36 weeks via an emergency c-section. She was immediately transported to CHOC for body and brain cooling, to prevent seizure, stroke or damage to the brain. Her mother Cara shares a thank you note to the team that cared for now thriving almost-two-year-old.

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To our CHOC caregivers,

We want to thank you with our entire hearts for truly transforming a nightmare into a beautiful dream. After an extremely healthy pregnancy without any red flags, Willow was born at 36 weeks and 2 days. Twelve hours after my water broke, there was extreme blood loss prompting the nurse to call a code. The on-call OB-GYN at the hospital where I delivered was in my room within seconds. Willow’s heart rate was around 60 beats per minute, only half of what it should be. An emergency cesarean immediately followed. Doctors discovered that I had a very rare condition called velamentous cord insertion where the umbilical cord inserts into the fetal membranes, then travels to the placenta. This means exposed blood vessels are vulnerable to rupture. Willow had lost a substantial amount of blood that required two blood transfusions and she was intubated.

The life-saving, phenomenal level of care that we received from our team at Hoag Hospital quickly continued at CHOC. After a perfectly healthy pregnancy, I never could have foreseen my daughter would be taken via ambulance to a different hospital just five minutes after I saw her for the first time. EVERY single day, I think about our nurses and doctors at CHOC. They were calm, abundantly informative and so gentle. The doctors answered as many questions as we had and we were never rushed. They are truly masters of their craft. Before this experience, I never thought a NICU could be comforting.

The NICU doctor said that Willow had experienced “insult” to her brain; the lack of blood flow had caused hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy. Fortunately, CHOC has a body and brain-cooling process that is used in situations like this to prevent stroke, seizure and damage to the brain. Our daughter is lucky; her 72-hour cooling process resulted in zero stroke, seizure, or worse.

Today, Willow is 20 months old and thriving! She is a miracle because of all the hands that worked on her. We feel grateful to have spoken on behalf of CHOC over the last 20 months to help raise much needed funds for the new all-private-room NICU that opens this summer. We believe in paying it forward to the future families that now can stay with their baby as they heal. We love our caregivers at CHOC more than they may know.                                               –Love, Cara Dee

Faith Amouroux

Diagnosed at 18 weeks gestation with a congenital diaphragmatic hernia, Faith was born at 40 weeks gestation and spent four months in the neonatal intensive care unit. Today, she is a happy and active six-year-old girl. Her family shares a note of thanks for the team that cared for her.

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Our family thanks God everyday and we are forever grateful for the caring and dedicated NICU team at CHOC. Our daughter, Faith was diagnosed at 18 weeks gestation with a birth defect called CDH (Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia). We learned that 80 percent of her diaphragm was missing and were told that the statistic were not good. Her chances for survival were slim and if she did survive, she would have many health issues. Faith was born at 40 weeks gestation and after ECMO, CDH repair surgery & four months in NICU she pulled through. Faith is now 6 years old and has had a few minor hurdles but continues to defy the odds. She is doing great. Faith loves to sing, dance, play dress up, jump rope and read. Thank you CHOC; you have an awesome NICU team. -Amouroux Family

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CHOC Included Among Nation’s Best Children’s Hospitals in U.S. News Survey

CHOC Children’s has been named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in its 2017-18 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings.

CHOC ranked in seven specialties: cancer, diabetes/endocrinology, neonatology, neurology/neurosurgery, orthopedics, pulmonology and urology, which earned a top 20 spot on the coveted list.

According to U.S. News, the Best Children’s Hospitals rankings were introduced in 2007 to help families of children with rare or life-threatening illnesses find the best medical care available.

The 11th annual rankings recognize the top 50 pediatric facilities across the United States in 10 pediatric specialties.

The U.S. News Best Children’s Hospitals rankings rely on clinical data and on an annual survey of pediatric specialists. The rankings methodology considers clinical outcomes, such as mortality and infection rates, efficiency and coordination of care delivery and compliance with “best practices.”

“At CHOC Children’s, we are steadfastly committed to delivering high-quality, safe and reliable health care to our patients,” said Dr. James Cappon, CHOC’s chief quality officer. “Recognition from U.S. News of our excellence in these seven subspecialties validates our efforts, but also provides our patients and families with even more assurance of our commitment to excelling in all areas of care.”

“The pediatric centers we rank in Best Children’s Hospitals deliver exceptionally high-quality care and deserve to be recognized for their commitment,” U.S. News Health Rankings Editor Avery Comarow said. “Children with life-threatening illnesses or rare conditions need the state-of-the-art services and expertise these hospitals provide every day.”

Learn more about survival rates, adequacy of nurse staffing, procedure and patient volume, availability of programs for particular illnesses and conditions and more. 

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CHOC Walk in the Park 2017: Meet Team Hope

By Ashlie Wenrick, mom of CHOC patient Noah

I was inspired to become part of the CHOC Walk in the Park when I was in junior high, as a way I could help children in my own community who were  at CHOC Children’s. I did all I could to raise money, made calls to family and friends, wrote letters and went door-to-door asking for donations. That’s where my passion for raising money for CHOC all started and every year my parents and I would participate in the CHOC Walk.

My son Noah was born in 2014 at St. Joseph’s, right next to CHOC. Nine hours after he was born, a nurse noticed something was off during a routine check-up, and soon we were being sent to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). It took a few days to determine exactly what was wrong. Noah was diagnosed with a lung infection and stayed in the NICU for almost two weeks.

Having participated in the CHOC Walk for so many years, I knew that CHOC was an amazing hospital, but I didn’t think I would ever be on the receiving end of their care. Being a walker for so many years and then having your own child be a patient at CHOC can be very emotional! CHOC did everything they could to make us feel comfortable when we were there and their staff was amazing!

choc walk
Meet Noah, the inspiration behind CHOC Walk in the Park’s Team Hope

In 2014 my husband and I created Team HOPE in honor of Noah. It started off as a small team, but last year Team Hope had around 90 walkers and raised more than $16,000 for CHOC. I never imagined Team HOPE would be such a big team! . Thanks to CHOC,  Noah is now a happy, healthy 3-year-old and for that we will continue walking for CHOC helping raising money.

My favorite memory from all CHOC walks is when you are standing on Main Street, waiting with thousands of walkers getting ready to start the CHOC Walk. I love looking around and seeing how excited everyone is and thinking all of us came together to help raise money for CHOC and knowing there are some amazing stories on why money is raised is an amazing feeling!

A few tips for first time CHOC Walkers: remember that in fundraising, every dollar counts in making a difference. On the day of the walk, allow extra time to park and find your way to the front of Disneyland as the trams are not running. Last but not least, have fun while raising money for the children.

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Landon’s Life-Saving Jejunal Atresia Surgery

Lizette Lough, experiencing a seemingly normal pregnancy, was making final preparations to welcome her first baby, when her water unexpectedly broke at 33 weeks. She was rushed to San Antonio Regional Hospital in Upland, close to home, where her son Landon was born early on May 3, 2016.

After a few days in the hospital, Lizette and her husband Sean noticed the baby had not made a bowel movement. Tests revealed that Landon had an obstruction in his intestine. His physician recommended Landon be transferred immediately to CHOC for an emergency surgery with Dr. Peter Yu, a pediatric general and thoracic surgeon.

“My husband and I lost it,” Lizette says. “Our baby was only three days old and weighed about 4 pounds. The thought of surgery was beyond frightening.”

Upon arrival at CHOC, the Loughs were immediately made to feel at home by the staff, who helped them find a nearby hotel. Dr. Yu explained every scenario of the complex surgery in a compassionate and confident manner, the Loughs recall.

Jejunal atresia
Landon was born at 33 weeks and diagnosed with jejunal atresia, despite prenatal genetic testing and a healthy pregnancy.

“Landon was in stable condition when he arrived at CHOC, and I’m very pleased that our expert transport team was able to get him here quickly and safely. If there had been a delay in transfer, Landon could have become very sick and it’s very possible that more of his intestine could have died. If that would’ve happened, he may not have had enough bowel to adequately digest food, which can be incompatible with life,” Dr. Yu says.

Landon was diagnosed with jejunal atresia, a rare condition – approximately 1 in 5,000 births – in which the small intestine is incompletely developed, leading to one or more gaps, or blockages, in the intestinal tract.

Lizette had gone through the required genetic tests prior to Landon’s birth, and jejunal atresia – often diagnosed prenatally – was not detected.

Additionally, Landon had malrotation of his intestines, which failed to coil in the proper position in the abdomen. This led to twisting of his bowel. If surgery had been delayed for longer, Landon could have died.

Landon’s surgery involved making an incision on his abdomen, examining the entire length of his intestine and untwisting it, removing the dead bowel, stitching together his small intestine, and performing a Ladd’s procedure. A Ladd’s procedure places the intestines back into the abdomen in a safe configuration to prevent future twisting of the bowel.

jejunal atresia
Landon and his dad Sean in the surgical NICU at CHOC after Landon’s jejunal atresia surgery

Sean, who works as a law enforcement officer, recalls how traumatic this was for his family. “I’m used to working in stressful situations, but this was a different kind of stress,” he says. “We were so happy that our baby had a successful surgery and that he was better. However, we were still waiting for him to have his first bowel movement. We were trying to stay positive.”

After his first bowel movement indicated that his intestines were recovering well, and spending about a month in CHOC’s surgical NICU, Landon was finally able to go home with his family.

jejunal atresia
Landon and his mom Lizette during his first feeding, which took place in the surgical NICU at CHOC after his jejunal atresia surgery

“It takes a team to successfully care for sick babies and complex patients,” Dr. Yu explains. “Landon would not have had the excellent outcome that he had without our wonderful neonatologists, experienced and skilled pediatric anesthesiologists, Melissa Powell, our dedicated surgical neonatal nurse practitioner, and the outstanding NICU nurses who have dedicated their lives to taking care of newborn babies such as Landon and countless others. Together, we have the only dedicated surgical NICU in the area, with a special focus on taking care of newborns with surgical problems.”

Thanks to the expert multidisciplinary care provided at CHOC, today Landon is a happy baby, meeting all his milestones. The Loughs are enjoying their brave little boy, and look forward to his first birthday next month.

jejunal atresia
Landon is looking forward to celebrating his first birthday at home with his parents.

“Dr. Yu and the nurses in the NICU were so empathetic and amazing. They saw us through so much throughout our stay and we will forever be thankful,” Lizette says.

Find a CHOC pediatric surgeon

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Meet Dr. Christine Bixby

CHOC Children’s wants its patients and families to get to know its specialists. Today, meet Dr. Christine Bixby, a neonatologist. She completed a fellowship in neonatology, as well as her residency and an internship in pediatrics at Harbor UCLA Medical Center. She attended medical school at University of California, Davis. Dr. Bixby is the president of the Orange County Breastfeeding Coalition. Currently the medical director of lactation services at CHOC, she has been on staff at CHOC for nine years.

Dr. Christine Bixby
Meet Dr. Christine Bixby, a neonatologist at CHOC Children’s

Q: What are your special clinical interests?
A: Newborn and premature care, and breastfeeding and breast milk use in extremely low birth weight infants.

Q: Are you involved in any current research?

A: Breast milk handling, breast milk use in low birth weight infants, breast milk and feeding in entire Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) population.

Q: What are some new programs or developments within your specialty?
A: Through CHOC’s NICU initiative, the increased number of private rooms will help further facilitate family involvement in infants’ care and allow for a better transition to the family for breastfeeding. It will allow them to be as close to their baby as possible.

Q: What are your most common diagnoses?
A: Prematurity and respiratory distress in newborn.

Q: What would you most like patients and families to know about you or your division at CHOC?
A: We focus on involving families in an infant’s care and help them navigate their NICU stay to make sure they’re comfortable with their baby’s care, and understand what’s happening on behalf of their child. I want them to rest assured there really are so many people working tirelessly on behalf of their baby across so many disciplines.

Q:  What inspires you most about the care being delivered here at CHOC?
A: We’re trying to continually push the envelope of providing better and better care from both a technical standpoint and also from a supporting families standpoint.

Q: Why did you decide to become a doctor?
A: My father experienced a serious injury at age two, and only survived it because of the great medical care he received. Once I was older I got the chance to see what medicine was really about, and I realized it’s about using critical thinking skills to get people through a challenging time, both medically and emotionally.

Q: If you weren’t a physician, what would you be and why?
A:  I’d be a park ranger because my father was a park ranger. I love being outside and spending quiet time in nature.

Q: What are your hobbies/interests outside of work?
A: I love spending time with my children and family, crocheting, inline skating, hiking and camping

Q: What have you learned from your patients?
A: I’ve learned the incredible strength of babies. We underestimate them as a society, but a sick baby is often stronger than a sick adult. I’m continually impressed by my patients’ families and the way they handle challenging diagnoses. They are put into a difficult position, but they process the information and move forward and are wonderful advocates for their children.

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Inside the Small Baby Unit: Ryan’s Story

Danielle McLeod was looking forward to an easy second pregnancy and ultimately caring for her infant son as a confident and assured second-time mom.

But that expectation changed when little Ryan was born three months early this past winter after just 27 weeks gestation and weighing only 2 pounds and 1 ounce.

small baby unit
Patient Ryan shortly after his birth and before he was transferred from another hospital to the Small Baby Unit at CHOC Children’s.

“His head wasn’t much bigger than a pacifier,” Danielle recalls. “He was the littlest baby I had ever seen. He was so skinny, and was all arms and legs. I was amazed at how active he was for such a little person. Like many preemies, he was a fighter from the start.”

And fight Ryan did inside CHOC Children’s Small Baby Unit (SBU), a portion of CHOC’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) dedicated to the care of babies born with extremely low birth weights. These patients are born at less than 28 weeks gestation and weighing less than 1,000 grams, or about 2 pounds and 3 ounces.

In the SBU, “micro-preemies” like Ryan receive coordinated care in a developmentally appropriate environment. A trailblazer in neonatal care nationwide, the unit is saving babies who just decades ago wouldn’t have likely survived.

“With its coordinated care in an environmentally appropriate location, the Small Baby Unit is designed to care specifically for babies like Ryan,” says Dr. Kushal Bhakta, Ryan’s neonatologist and medical director of the SBU. “When he came to the unit, he required significant ventilator support due to an ongoing infection, and he had a long road ahead of him.”

Danielle’s breezy pregnancy took a sudden turn early in her second trimester when her doctor found in her womb a subchronic hematoma, an indicator that she might deliver her baby early.

 Danielle was put on bed rest, but a few weeks later, bleeding and signs of labor showed. At the hospital, doctors were able to stop the labor and admitted Danielle to keep it from beginning again too early. But about six weeks later, Danielle’s water broke and she underwent an emergency cesarean section.

On Valentine’s Day, after two weeks of ups and downs, Ryan was transferred to the SBU at CHOC and the McLeod family began their four-month journey.

“I don’t think people understand the pain that comes with having a child and not being able to hold him immediately or not being able to take him home shortly after delivery and share him with the world,” Danielle says.

small baby unit
Ryan was born at 27 weeks gestation and spent 17 weeks in CHOC’s small baby unit before going home.

She continues, “It was difficult knowing that there were many obstacles for Ryan to overcome before he could even think about coming home. Simple things like eating by mouth, a task that should come naturally, are challenging for babies born premature.”

During that time, while also focusing on growing, Ryan also battled chronic lung disease and a brain bleed, and learned to eat and breathe on his own. Meanwhile, Danielle and husband, Jared, learned how to care for a baby born more than three months early.

“I’ll never forget our first day at CHOC,” she says. “I was so overwhelmed, scared, and nervous. Once Ryan was settled in the SBU, his nurse came in to do his very first set of cares. I sat and watched, afraid to touch him. He was so fragile.”

She continues, “His nurse said, ‘Get in there, mama. You can do it.’ She had me put my hand on him, my hand covering his whole little torso. She talked me though what to do when caring for an extra small baby. From then on, I felt confident to be close to my little fighter.”

small baby unit
Members of Ryan’s care team included Dr. Kushal Bhakta, medical director, and Ryan’s mom Danielle.

After 17 weeks in the SBU, Ryan finally went home to join his parents and brother. He still receives oxygen treatment and undergoes physical therapy twice a week, but is doing well.

It takes a village of physicians, nurses, therapists, social workers and other clinicians to help bring babies like Ryan home — and every one on the care team partners with patients’ families.

“During his stay in the unit, Ryan overcame great obstacles, thanks to the partnership between his care team and his parents,” Dr. Bhakta says. “Our goal in the unit is to get our patients home with the best possible outcomes. Today, Ryan is doing well and has a bright future ahead.”

small baby unit
At CHOC, parents are valued members of the care team. Here. Ryan’s dad holds him for the first time in the small baby unit.

Small but mighty, Ryan is rolling over and pushing himself up well, and is working toward sitting up by himself.

“He also loves smiling and laughing, especially at his big brother,” Danielle says.

small baby unit
After graduating from CHOC’s small baby unit, Ryan has been enjoying being home with his family and playing with his older brother.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” she says. “We are so grateful to all the wonderful nurses and doctors who cared for Ryan. I know he is doing so well because of the amazing care he received while in the SBU. We love our little fighter. He’s such a good baby. He is truly a miracle and we are blessed to be able to witness this little guy’s journey.”

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Meet Dr. Kushal Bhakta

In recognition of prematurity awareness month, we’re highlighting Dr. Kushal Bhakta, medical director of CHOC Children’s Small Baby Unit (SBU).

Dr. Kushal Bhakta
Meet Dr. Kushal Bhakta, medical director of the small baby unit at CHOC Children’s

The Small Baby Unit – the first of its kind – opened in 2010. The special 12-bed unit within our neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is designed for babies born at less than 28 weeks gestation or who weigh less than 1,000 grams. The space is designed to aid in babies’ development with dim lighting and low noise levels, mimicking the womb’s environment as closely as possible. The unit is also nurturing for patients’ families. Since they are going through many of the same experiences, families are able to bond and support one another.

“It’s an amazing blessing to be part of these families’ lives. So many parents write to us and send pictures long after they’ve left the hospital. There is a mutual respect, and they become part of our extended family,” Dr. Bhakta says.

Board certified in pediatrics and neonatal-perinatal medicine, Dr. Bhakta is part of a specialized, highly trained team at CHOC. He owes the success of the unit to his team, he says.

“It’s inspiring to see the team’s passion for the lives of these babies,” Dr. Bhakta says. “From nurses to respiratory therapists, and all other disciplines, everyone on the team takes care of our patients like they were their own children.”

The highly committed team is improving quality and outcomes in extremely low birth weight infants. Impressive outcomes from the two years before and four years after the SBU’s opening in March 2010 include:

  • Significant reduction in chronic lung disease of prematurity.
  • Significant reduction in the rate of hospital-acquired infections.
  • Significant reduction in infants being discharged with growth restriction . These factors are linked to cognitive and physical disabilities.
  • Reduction in the average number of laboratory tests and X-rays per patient.

Dr. Bhakta’s vision for the SBU is to be recognized nationally and beyond as the premier destination for the care of extremely preterm infants. Dr. Bhakta and his team have hosted many hospitals interested in modeling their units after CHOC’s SBU. As leaders in their field, the team hopes to continue to improve patient outcomes.

“We’ve come so far in how we treat this patient population, he says. “We don’t want to only adapt knowledge, but create the knowledge and help set standards of care for these patients.”

Dr. Bhakta received his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine and completed his pediatric residency and neonatal-perinatal fellowship training at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, in Houston, Texas. He later joined the faculty at Baylor College of Medicine/Texas Children’s Hospital as assistant professor of pediatrics, where he also obtained an advanced certificate in teaching through the Educational Scholars Fellowship Program.

Dr. Bhakta has received several awards throughout his career, including “Super Doctors Southern California Rising Stars” in 2014 and 2015.

In his spare time, this dedicated physician enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters.

Learn more about CHOC Children’s Small Baby Unit.

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Why One Mom Is Thankful for CHOC This Year

By Karen Stapleton, CHOC parent and mom of Noah

Happy Thanksgiving! My name is Karen Stapleton, and my son Noah is a patient at CHOC Children’s. As I prepare to celebrate the holidays with my family, I’m grateful we can be together since we have so much to celebrate. I’m also grateful for Noah’s many doctors and nurses at CHOC because without them, my son wouldn’t be alive.

Noah’s birth story

When I was 29 weeks pregnant with Noah, we learned that he had Down syndrome. Another prenatal ultrasound showed an abnormality in his heart, and we were referred to Dr. Pierangelo Renella, a pediatric cardiologist at CHOC, who diagnosed Noah with tetralogy of fallot, a serious heart defect that causes poor oxygenated blood flow from the heart to the rest of the body. I was scared, but having been a CHOC patient myself as a child, I knew my son would be in good hands.

Karen and Noah in the NICU, shortly after Noah was born
Karen and Noah in the NICU, shortly after Noah was born

On July 27 of last year our lives changed forever— Noah was born! I chose to deliver at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange so that my son could be as close to CHOC as possible. When he was born, there were so many doctors and nurses around. I saw Noah quickly enough to give him a kiss before he was whisked away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at CHOC.

Shortly after birth, Noah’s care team also diagnosed him with Apert syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes certain bones to fuse early. For Noah, that was his skull, fingers and toes.

 

A series of surgeries begins at 3 days old

Noah’s first surgery happened just three days after he was born. Due to the complexity of Noah’s conditions, the surgery was a team effort from multiple CHOC specialties. Noah’s gastroenterologist Dr. Jeffrey Ho; his team of cardiologists Dr. Renella, Dr. Michael Recto, Dr. Anthony McCanta, and Dr. Gira Morchi; his pulmonologist Dr. Amy Harrison; his otolaryngologist Dr. Felizardo Camilon; and the entire NICU team came together to prepare him and get him through that surgery.

It was a success, and 31 days after he was born, Noah finally came home! Weekly trips back to CHOC’s clinics included visits to gastroenterology, pulmonary, cardiology and craniofacial specialists. It was another team effort to prepare Noah for a second open heart surgery that he would eventually need.

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Noah and his cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Richard Gates

But a few weeks later, Noah had respiratory complications, which lead to an emergency open heart surgery at just 2 ½ months old. Thanks to Noah’s cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Richard Gates, and Noah’s fighting spirit, he was able to come home shortly after surgery.

Celebrating Christmas at CHOC

Just days before Christmas last year, Noah had to be admitted to CHOC for respiratory failure. It was scary to see my baby sedated for 19 days. Dr. Juliette Hunt, a critical care specialist, recommended that Noah undergo a tracheostomy, where a small opening is made in his windpipe and a tube is inserted to help him breathe. Making a decision like that is hard and scary for a mom, but I had complete trust in Noah’s team, and if they knew it would help Noah breathe easier, then I knew it was the right thing to do.

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Noah celebrated his first Christmas at CHOC

After that, Noah started to thrive. He gained weight and became strong enough for his next open heart surgery with Dr. Gates. After a mere six days in the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit following this surgery, Noah got to come home again!

Even when Noah is doing well, sometimes it can be scary to care for him when he’s at home. During one of our hospital stays, I confided this fear in one of Noah’s favorite nurses, Karissa. She gave me specific tips on what to do during his tummy time and baths, and gave me the courage to care for my son. She encouraged me, and reminded me that CHOC wouldn’t advise me to do anything that wasn’t safe.

Noah and Karissa, a registered nurse at CHOC

Noah’s first birthday

All of this is a lot for a little baby to go through before his first birthday, but Noah has always surprised us and pulled through. Celebrating his first birthday meant more than celebrating his first year of life; it meant celebrating every fight Noah had won over the last year, and it meant appreciating a milestone that at times we thought we might never reach. We decided a super hero theme was perfect for his party because we think of Noah as our little super hero.

Noah celebrating his first birthday

After his birthday, Noah continued to flourish and grow! He started rolling over and actively playing, and he has not stopped smiling.

This progress allowed us to prepare for his next major surgery, a frontal orbital advancement, to reshape his skull and forehead that has fused too early due to Apert syndrome.

Before surgery could begin, the doctors needed to cut Noah’s hair to make a safe incision in his skull. We marked another one of Noah’s milestones at CHOC— his first haircut!

Noah received his very first haircut at CHOC from his neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Muhonen, prior to a skull surgery.
Noah’s very first haircut happened at CHOC. He received it from his neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Muhonen, prior to skull surgery.

With the expertise of his neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Muhonen and his plastic surgeon Dr. Raj Vyas, and a very short stay in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, Noah came home again! After yet another successful surgery at CHOC, his brain can now continue to grow.

Noah has more hurdles and additional surgeries ahead of him, but even with how much he’s fought, he continues to smile. He’s not cranky and he doesn’t cry. He’s enjoying every single day he gets to be here – and that’s the life he has taught me to live too.

If Noah’s care team ever needs a reminder of why they do what you do, I tell them: My son would not be here today if it were not for each and every one of them here at CHOC. And for that, my family will be forever grateful.

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