Big care for the tiniest of patients

Bethany Torres' first son, Wyatt, was given the nickname "the Goliath baby" by nurses when he was born in March 2004.

The hefty 9-pound, 14-ounce newborn, however, wasn't immune to complications and only a day after his birth was being admitted to Fountain Valley Regional Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit.

Torres, 28, of Corona, isn't alone in her experience as a scared new mom. Out of 38,000 babies born in the county each year, 3,500 are premature and in need of intensive care, according to Celia Wheeler, executive director of the Orange County March of Dimes. Wheeler said she didn't have a number for the newborns like Wyatt, who while not underweight still need focused hospital attention to get the right start in life.

Fountain Valley Regional's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) are celebrating 30 years of service to such families.

Torres said Wyatt, born about one week late, was admitted into the NICU after showing signs of an infection and jaundice.

"It was really hard for me because I had this big, full-term baby," Torres said. "You never think that your baby's going to end up in the NICU when it's that size."

She said she was a little overwhelmed seeing her son in such a vulnerable position, but was calmed by the hospital staff, which included her mother, who has worked for Fountain Valley Regional for 30 years.

Fortunately for Torres, Wyatt's time in intensive care was limited. She said he spent about five days in the hospital, receiving intravenous antibiotics for his infection and laying under bilirubin lights for his jaundice.

However, Torres found herself in Fountain Valley Regional again in 2008, this time in its PICU after giving birth to a 6-pound daughter, Sharlet.

Though a full-term baby as well, Sharlet also needed hospital treatment. Five weeks after she was born, she had

contracted respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a condition that infects the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.

"She started to act like she had a cold, like a stuffy nose and everything," Torres said. "I ended up taking her to the doctor and they said it kind of looks like a cold and to give her Tylenol for her fever, and if she gets worse to bring her back."

Sharlet did get worse, her face turning a bluish-purple when she cried or coughed. The infant spent nine days in Fountain Valley's PICU, undergoing breathing treatments and having mucus suctioned out of her, Torres said.

"I didn't sleep for days being at the hospital with her," the mother said. "They had her on monitors that if she stopped breathing or her breathing patterns got too low, they would have to come in and they would pick her up and hit her chest and suction her out. I've never seen that much mucus come out of a little, tiny baby. It was awful."

Sharlet made a full recovery, but Torres said her daughter has been more susceptible to colds and other respiratory infections since.

"She got another cold-like sickness four months after that," she said. "Luckily, it wasn't as bad.… Her immunity is not as good as my other kids. She does get sick a lot more because of her contracting [RSV]."


Inside NICU

Dr. Veeriah Chundu strolled through the dimly lit NICU on a Wednesday afternoon, checking up on his patients as they lay in incubators or radiant warmers.

The NICU medical director briefly monitored a baby born after a 34-week gestation who was gradually improving after having breathing problems.

"We incubated the baby the other day and now he's on a nasal cannula," Chundu said. "He's breathing pretty much on his own and getting a little bit of support from the machine."

The tiny patient is one of about 45 babies the NICU treats in a month, said Chundu, who estimates that the unit sees 600 newborns a year.

The hospital treats so many patients because it's one of three Level 3C facilities in the area, with the Children's Hospital of Orange County and UC Irvine Medical Center being the other closest alternatives.

Fountain Valley's Level 3C NICU has the staff — consisting of heart, neurological and other specialists — to perform complex surgeries on newborns that lower-tiered facilities can't handle, Chundu said.

"Level 2 centers don't have any sub-[category] specialists, so they can't really do any surgeries," he said. "So they bring them to us."

Chundu, who has been with the hospital for 20 years, said advancements in technology and medicine have made it easier to treat critical patients as well as increase their odds for survival.

"It was very difficult to manage these types of babies back in those days," Chundu said. "If we could save a 28- to 29-weeker — that means almost eight months — we felt like we did a great job. Now we don't have to do phenomenal things to save those babies."

Deeper inside Fountain Valley Regional is its PICU facility, which treats babies, children and teenagers, and is headed by medical director Dr. Kenneth Kim.

The facility is a Level 2 unit — on a scale that differs from that used in NICU. It doesn't do major surgeries, like the heart and lung transplants that Level 1 units handle, Kim said.

Kim, who has worked at the hospital for 14 years, said his nursing staff is what makes his PICU one of the best in the county and possibly the nation.

"Our nursing staff has an average of over nine years of experience in the PICU," he said. "If you go to any other children's hospital, I mean any other one in the country, they have far less than that."

Additionally, Kim said the facility has attending physicians making critical decisions on patients and not resident physicians who are still learning the ropes. He said an attending doctor is in the PICU at all times.

"We're always here 24 hours a day," Kim said. "It's not the resident that's there, not even a fellow, but it's the attending who's gone through all the training: medical school, three years of residency, three years of fellowship. And we've been attending, just doing pediatric ICU for the rest of our career. That makes a big difference in terms of the quality of the care."


Celebrating 30 years

Torres lived in Anaheim when she gave birth to Wyatt but moved to Corona by the time Sharlet was born. Nonetheless she chose Fountain Valley Regional for the births of her children because of the services and reliability.

"It was a lot more comfortable for me to go somewhere that I'm familiar with and that I know that they're getting good care," Torres said.

Even when she was a surrogate mother for a set of twins, she still drove down from Riverside County to have them in Fountain Valley. Having a trustworthy NICU was important, Torres said, since there is a higher risk of complications with twins.

In celebration of 30 years, the hospital is hosting a free community event Nov. 17 with the March of Dimes at the Great Lawn in the Fountain Valley Recreation Center, 16400 Brookhurst St. The date also marks World Prematurity Day.

"Because we're celebrating our 30th anniversary and they're [the March of Dimes] celebrating their 75th this year as well, we thought it would be a good way to collaborate and get the message out in the community to celebrate healthy babies and healthy kids," said Dina Edwards, marketing and communications manager for Fountain Valley Regional.

The event will feature games, live entertainment, rides, food, vendors and health education tents.

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