Search Close Search
Big help for tiny patients
Page Menu

Big help for tiny patients

UMass Memorial NICU babies are receiving even better care thanks to the generosity of a local “guardian angel”

Barbara "Babs" Donahue has been extraordinarily generous to UMass Memorial Medical Center and its academic partner UMass Medical School over the years, helping to make possible the acquisition of such life-changing equipment as a dedicated breast CT machine, a specially equipped emergency response vehicle to bring physicians to the site of medical emergencies, and technology to help care for infants born with brain injuries.

This gift enabled the purchase of three specialized monitors for the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU)—and it made a big impact on the way UMass Memorial is able to care for its littlest patients. These state-of-the-art machines allow NICU doctors and nurses to non-invasively assess the levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood of these tiny infants.

Chief of Neonatology Lawrence M. Rhein, MD, MPH, explained why this capability is so significant:

“In the old days, to measure a patient’s blood levels of oxygen or carbon dioxide—which is essential in assessing patients’ lung function—we had to draw blood,” he said. “A couple of decades ago, a non-invasive way to measure oxygen status was developed that uses a probe on the finger, or a sticker affixed to an infant, that displays what those levels are every second.

“Until recently, however, we still had to draw blood to determine how well the lungs were getting rid of carbon dioxide,” Dr. Rhein said. “But now there’s new technology that allows us to continuously monitor both of these vital measures non-invasively. For any patient—but especially for these tiny, fragile infants who are on a ventilator—this is a big deal.”

Dr. Rhein pointed out that this new technology improves the way the NICU is able to care for these patients in two important ways.

“Before, to the naked eye, a baby might look stable but her CO2 could be going up suddenly,” he explained. “However, we wouldn’t know that until she was in obvious distress. These new monitors signal us to intervene before the infant is in distress, which translates into better care—and better outcomes.

“We also want to wean babies off ventilators as quickly as possible, so they’re not exposed to unnecessary treatment,” Dr. Rhein continued. “Now we can do this with much greater confidence since we can better monitor their lung function.

“It’s an amazing tool in terms of improving care right now. It’s also teaching us how to better care for infants in the future—information we can share with other NICUs and providers caring for patients of all ages.”

Mrs. Donahue discovered UMass Memorial’s need for these monitors while visiting the NICU to see how her previous donation had helped.

“After a tour of the unit with the doctors and nurses, we were sitting around a conference table and I asked, ‘If you could make a wish, what’s the one thing you need?’” Mrs. Donahue said. “All in a chorus, they mentioned these new ventilation monitors.”

While the NICU already had one of these ventilation monitors, its use had to be rationed, sharing it among the babies who needed it most. Dr. Rhein told Mrs. Donahue that if they had more of these pieces of equipment, they could make the technology more available.

“So I asked how many they needed, and they said three,” she said. “So that’s how many I wanted them to have, so they’d have a little fleet of these machines.

“I just love that NICU,” Mrs. Donahue continued, explaining her motivation for supporting its work. “I get emotional seeing those little ones struggling to hold onto life, and if I could help a thousand times over I would. It’s quite a feeling when you think that some little machine you provide can help save a life.”

“To have her come in and just ask how she can help, well, we are just so grateful,” Dr. Rhein said. “If we want to be on the cutting edge, we need help. This is something that, through her efforts, is already having an impact on families.”

“I’m blessed to be able to do it,” Mrs. Donahue said, simply. “It gives me a lot of joy.”