The legacy behind Christiana Care’s new health center

The new NICU at Christiana Care's Center for Women & Children's Health will include spacious private rooms.
The new NICU at Christiana Care’s Center for Women & Children’s Health will include spacious private rooms.

In 1947, Delaware pediatrician Dr. Margaret Handy was convinced that preemies and newborns would thrive with a steady supply of breast milk. To meet the demand, she established The Mother’s Milk Bank at Delaware Hospital, now Christiana Care Health System.

More than 70 years later, that spirit of innovation continues with the construction of Christiana Care’s new Center for Women and Children’s Health, scheduled for completion in 2020. A hallmark of the new eight-story building will be the focus on family-centered care, including a sleep-in space for mom and dad in the neonatal intensive care unit (NCIU).

The model of care is influenced by early Delaware trailblazers like Handy. Consider Delaware’s lineage in neonatal care:

Dr. Handy was already a pioneer as Delaware’s first practicing pediatrician. She is credited with creating and overseeing the milk bank and for working to improve care for premature infants, eventually becoming the chief of pediatrics at Delaware Hospital.

Handy also mentored Dr. Katherine “Kitty” Esterly, called the “mother of Delaware neonatology” at Christiana Care, who developed a neonatology unit for premature infants and implemented transport care for critically ill and premature newborns. Esterly worked well into her 80s and recruited the current director, Dr. John Stefano, before retiring.

Today, the department will update its Level III Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), scheduled for expansion in both physical footprint and innovative practice, according to Dr. David A. Paul, chair of the Department of Pediatrics at Christiana Care Health System.

The mother/child dyad dynamic — caring for both mother and baby in the same space — puts Christiana Care at the forefront of an innovative model that’s emerging across Europe, according to Paul. The $260 million Center for Women & Children’s Health will also include new and expanded delivery suites, an expanded triage area, new labor lounge, separate admitting and discharge areas, including a “Celebration Hall,” and a continuing-care nursery.

“Presently, if a baby goes to the NICU, mom recovers on a separate floor,” Paul said. “In the dyad model, mothers and babies will remain together.”

That’s great news to Amanda Sleeper, a member of the Patient and Family Advisory Council and mom of two premature infants who spent time in Christiana’s NICU.

“That would have been priceless,” said Sleeper. “My children are healthy and happy but the one thing that tugs at my heart when I look at their births was the time that was spent separated.”

The advisory council worked closely with hospital officials to determine how the new building will meet the needs of families and health care workers, even participating in mock-up rooms to identify optimal floor plans and workable spaces for patients and staff.

“We were involved in the nitty gritty details; it was a great learning experience and I realize the compassion the staff at the hospital has,” said Sleeper.

Currently, Christiana Care NICU offers a pod design, “hardly enough room for baby and staff to work and for family to stay overnight,” according to Paul. “The new NICU will offer single family rooms so every baby will have own room — every room has a bathroom, a pullout couch, and a separate family area. It’s meant for families to spend as much time as they want, for them to be comfortable for the long haul.”

In addition, the building will be wired with a Real-Time Location System (RTLS), linking equipment and security measures, infrastructure that will be efficient without increasing operating costs, according to Paul.

But with the lifespan of a typical space approximately 20 to 25 years, how do you account for future innovation and trends?

“We’re trying to make it as adaptable and malleable as possible,” said Paul, who added that the plan calls for a fifth-floor shell space to allow for expansion.

“Everybody who touches the building will be impacted,” said Paul. “People are going to be proud of this building because there is a lot of emphasis on provider well-being. Our care is going to go way beyond the building, and it’s that spirit of innovation — we’re pioneering new technologies.”

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