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Caring for ‘very tiny’ patients

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Posted: Thursday, May 24, 2012 12:00 pm | Updated: 11:26 pm, Sat May 11, 2013.

Killeen mom visits 10-day-old son daily at Temple hospital

By Rose L. Thayer

Killeen Daily Herald

The sounds of the neonatal intensive care unit are distinctive. Beeps and buzzers are constant, alerting nurses to the "very tiny" patients nestled in incubators.

"It's the second best thing to mother nature," said Dr. Cheryl Cipriani, division director of neonatology at Scott & White Healthcare in Temple.

Occupying one of the Temple unit's 48 beds is 10-day-old Levi Coffey. He's cushioned in blankets inside an incubator, where he will remain for at least the next 16 weeks.

A silver teddy bear stuck to Levi's belly monitors his temperature. A respirator helps him breathe. His eyes have not opened yet, but his legs and arms are in perpetual motion. His fingers reach out and curl slightly around the tube in his nose.

"You can't tell me he's not perfect," said Ashley Coffey, smiling at her infant son. Just 24 weeks into her pregnancy, the Killeen mother was surprised when she went into labor. She was rushed to Temple, where Levi was born. He weighed 1 pound 10 ounces.

In Bell County, and in Texas, about 13 percent of all newborns are considered premature, according to birth records from the Texas Department of State Health Services. Babies are considered premature until they reach 37 weeks.

Coffey expected to have Levi at Metroplex, but the Killeen hospital's neonatal unit can't support babies born earlier than 32 weeks gestation.

While she hasn't held Levi yet, Coffey feeds her second son the breast milk she pumps, checks his temperature and helps change his diapers during her daily visits.

"I get to see him grow. I think of it like that," said Coffey, whose first son, now 2½, was delivered full term. "They tell me there will be good days and bad days. Thankfully, we've had a lot of good days."

Because a premature baby's health can change by the hour, Cipriani warns parents early on. "I tell parents right at first that I wouldn't wish having a very tiny baby on anyone," she said. "I've never taken care of one that didn't have a couple steps back before going home."

While technology has improved since neonatal units appeared in the early 1970s, there are still challenges. Babies born at 23 weeks have about a 50 to 60 percent survival rate. For those born just a week later, it jumps to 70 to 90 percent, she said.

"At the border line, each day makes a difference," said Cipriani. "The babies tend to stay in the hospital about as long as they would have stayed in the womb."

Parents of premature babies are encouraged to participate in their baby's care.

"That's a very important thing that we do," said Pam Sutton, manager of the four-bed neonatal unit at Metroplex. "We want to include them in everything that's going on with their baby. We encourage them to ask questions and we explain procedures. We like to keep them abreast of the daily weight gain and progressions that the baby is making."

Once premature babies are strong enough to be held, Scott & White encourages parents to do "kangaroo care," in which mothers and fathers lay their infants across their bare chests and both are covered with a blanket. Cipriani said this activity has been proven to have a positive impact on the baby's health.

Neonatal unit nurses also provide a lot of education for parents, said Debra White, a children's transport nurse with Scott & White who has spent 16 years working with premature babies.

For example, White teaches parents not to stroke their babies because their underdeveloped brains can't process that type of stimulation. "In all actuality, they shouldn't be touched at this age," said the nurse. Instead, parents should just lay their hand on their infants.

White said the best part of working in the neonatal unit is when parents bring former patients back to visit. "Even though they are their babies, they're our babies, too," she said.

While Coffey said it's hard to leave her son in the hospital every day, she reminds herself that Levi was never meant to be home this early. "I'm able to sleep at night knowing he's in the best place."

Contact Rose L. Thayer at rthayer@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHreporter.

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