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Nursing new life: How Northside Hospital-Forsyth's NICU is leading the way in family care
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Holly Ramey with Bradford in their room. - photo by Micah Green

Story highlights

* About 3,200 babies were born at the Women’s Center in 2016, 10-12 percent of which were admitted to the NICU, according to Melissa Sugg, the center’s manager.

* More families chose a Northside branch to welcome their children into the world than any other health care system in Georgia last year. To give them their best chance when that welcome comes early, Sugg and her team have realized what it takes.

* This NICU is unique among hospitals throughout Georgia in that it has 25 private rooms – the new Northside campus in Cherokee County will have this layout when it opens.

About this article

This article was originally published as the cover story of the May 2017 issue of 400-The Life, a publication of the Forsyth County News. To read the entire magazine, click here.

His 10 smaller-than-newborn toes were all there. They all curled and straightened as they should, connected to two legs that were connected to the rest of his body that had been exposed to the natural air for what may only have been minutes.

Enclosed in the isolette crib, his toes are pinker than brand new, each leg about the size of the blue-gloved fingers that are nursing him to health from what just years ago would almost certainly be a lost cause. He’s a fragile that most hospitals are not equipped to write a happy ending for.

He’s miniature yet massive. He has a team of nurses and doctors at Northside Hospital-Forsyth unwilling to give up on him. Born after only 29 weeks, the 2 pounds and 10 ounces he takes up in this world is stocky for what they’re used to. He’s one of the “big guys.”

Babies born as prematurely as 22 weeks are now admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit at the Cumming branch of the statewide health care system. Not because something is getting worse. Because technology – and the units like the one Big Guy is in – are getting better.

About 3,200 babies were born at the Women’s Center in 2016, 10-12 percent of which were admitted to the NICU, according to Melissa Sugg, the center’s manager. More families chose a Northside branch to welcome their children into the world than any other health care system in Georgia last year. To give them their best chance when that welcome comes early, Sugg and her team have realized what it takes.

Giving the family the space, privacy and the technology they and their child needs.

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“The highest experience level”

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A few rooms down from Big Guy, Holly Ramey visits her son every day. Bradford Ramey was born on Jan. 26 after a mere 25 weeks and three days. The first time mother and son met, he weighed 1 pound and 14 ounces.

“I’ve just heard from other families that they have visiting hours because it’s a NICU ward with all the other babies. All the families can’t come in at the same time. Because we have our own rooms here, we can stay. We can spend the night if we want to,” Ramey said.

This NICU is unique among hospitals throughout Georgia in that it has 25 private rooms – the new Northside campus in Cherokee County will have this layout when it opens. A couch pulls out to a bed for moms or dads to stay overnight with a curtain to pull around it.

The baby’s bed is temperature- and humidity-controlled, specially designed with teeny in mind. Small babies, small medication dosages, small feeding tubes, small X-rays.

“They don’t reach certain milestones until about 36-40 weeks, like breathing on their own and eating, being able to stay warm,” said Davin Miller, medical director for Northside Hospital-Forsyth’s neonatology.

Each nurse cares for two or three babies at a time, one if the newborn is sicker.

Miller said the unit’s five neonatologists and about 70 nurses “have the highest experience level of all of Northside.”

The unit is a Level III – the same as Atlanta’s campus – meaning any age baby is accepted, and Northside can partner with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to provide cardiac surgery.

Sugg, the Women’s Center manager, said more than 50 percent of the RNs working in the NICU are certified for a specialty.

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Caring for the whole family

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While the improving technology is certainly a must, simply aiming for a baby to survive is not the end-goal – a baby still needs to bond with a mother, and parents still need to begin their family.

Holly Ramey has made good use of the recliner chair that sits next to her son’s bed. By around March 20, Bradford weighed 4 pounds and 2 ounces.

“It’s just a comfort measure, but it helps the baby physically,” Ramey said. “I can now breastfeed him, and I can now do that more than if I just had visiting hours. There’s more hands-on time. I’m involved in changing his diaper. I can hold him.”

Changing his diaper, one of the many products companies are having to make smaller and smaller. Sugg showed one about the size of her palm.

The idea of family-integrated care continues beyond the rooms.

“It’s nice that everything you need is here. I didn’t have to go to another campus for anything to be seen by any specialists,” she said. “During my stay, I needed to see a prenatal specialist. They wheeled me to an adjacent building. They held off labor for about four days because I was able to get steroid shots to help his lungs. My OB is connected to this building, too, so my doctor could come over and see me.”

Now that she is healthy again and comes and goes to visit each day, Ramey can take advantage of the parents’ lounge open only to NICU visitors.

“The lounge has a key pad and a passcode for NICU families only, and it has a kitchen, a bathroom with a shower,” she said. “There’s sitting areas, a TV, computers. There’s kids’ tables and books. We can’t bring food into the NICU, so we can have lunch there, and there’s other NICU families there, but it’s quieter.”

It’s now mid-April. Bradford is 11 weeks old. He weighs 6 pounds, 3 ounces.

“These doctors,” Ramey said, “are just … Everyone told me when I had this baby I was in the right place.”