In 1970, The University of Tennessee Medical Center opened the region's first NICU, or neonatal intensive care unit. And with a recent $6 million expansion, it's now the largest private-room NICU in East Tennessee, with 58 rooms (four of them for multiple births) and access to 70 beds for busy periods.
Labor & Delivery and NICU – All on One Floor
It's also the only facility in the region with the NICU, labor and delivery rooms, postpartum rooms and a surgical area (where physicians can perform C-sections and other procedures) all on one floor.
“Having all these resources in one place creates an even better experience for babies and their families,” said Robert Elder, MD, vice president of the Center for Women & Infants, one of seven centers of excellence at the medical center. Elder also serves as a professor in the division of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine (UTGSM).
"We went from the old standard NICU – a mix of private rooms and large, open nursery – to a cutting-edge design with all private rooms," said Elder.
The redesign also includes state-of-the art equipment, low-key observation areas for medical staff, and a cozy nursery for parents, many of whom have babies staying in the NICU for months.
As a Level III NICU, the staff includes board-certified neonatologists, neonatal nurses, respiratory therapists and other specialists, who are available around the clock. And as the state-designated Regional Perinatal Center for the 21-county East Tennessee region, the NICU can care for both moms with high-risk pregnancies and the smallest, sickest babies.
“Being the region's academic medical center sets us apart,” said Elder. “From the services to the technology to the research, the medical center offers the best care for moms and babies.”
Thoughtful Design for Families
The newly expanded NICU rooms look more like upscale hotel rooms than a place you’d spend a long hospital stay. There are comfy chairs for nursing and a foldout couches for sleeping. And the staff doesn’t just give the families permission to personalize the space. They help them do it, with cheerful, hand-drawn markers of babies’ milestones. All of this makes the NICU, where some babies stay as many as 180 days, feel a little more like home.
Research That Rocks the Cradle
“While people know about the medical center,” said Robert Elder, MD, “its real impact on the region is probably underestimated.”
That’s because, like the development of the Giraffe bed, much of the research that happens here is often done behind the scenes. In addition to helping develop the incubator, medical center team members have:
- Led a pioneering study that proved drug-addicted moms can be weaned off drugs during pregnancy, resulting in healthier babies who are less likely to be dependent, themselves
- Joined in a state-wide research project that focused on helping drug-dependent babies go home more quickly
- Started developing a smart cannula, a breathing tube that fits in a baby’s nose, that detects when the baby stops breathing and automatically stimulates the baby to start again
- Studied infections in pregnancy and the role vaccines may play in keeping moms and babies healthy
In addition to technology, services and research at the Center for Women & Infants, the medical center offers physicians a four-year residency in Obstetrics & Gynecology
There, physicians can train in maternal-fetal medicine, urogynecology, reproductive endocrinology and infertility, and gynecologic oncology, while also performing scholarly research alongside specialty-trained faculty.
"If you’re going to instruct physicians, then you have to have the best physicians as educators,” Elder said.