Allegheny Health Network West Penn Hospital’s NICU: Bringing Technology and Family to the Bedside

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West Penn’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) has been providing lifesaving care to the tiniest, most fragile patients for nearly 50 years. Babies require time in the NICU for a vast number of reasons, including prematurity, breathing problems, infection, and jaundice. The NICU at West Penn has the capabilities to care for the most critically ill babies delivered at West Penn and services the communities of Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia through the skill of their transport team.

Beautiful natural light shines through into one of West Penn Hospital’s NICU rooms.
Photo Credit: Allegheny Health Network

In January 2019 Allegheny Health Network’s West Penn Hospital opened the doors to its expansion to the original Level III NICU. This amazing 23 bed, 16,500 square foot expansion was designed to meet all the needs of its patients and their families. The new entrance to the NICU is just a short distance down the hall from the labor and delivery unit of the hospital. Ensuring the safety of the infants being cared for in the unit, the door to the unit is locked at all times, with only parents and hospital personnel assigned special badges allowed access. Otherwise all visitors must press the doorbell to enter and be granted access.

As I walked into the new unit for the first time, I was blown away by its beauty. Despite the gloomy, wintery weather outside that day, the unit was glowing bright with natural light. Each of the new patient pods had its own bright color scheme:  purple, orange, blue and green walls created a playful, yet serene backdrop to the unit. Despite the busy time of day, early morning shift change for the nurses, the unit was peacefully quiet. Each of the rooms are private, with the exception of three rooms designed to accommodate families with twins. These private rooms are a huge change from the original NICU, where the pods were semi-private. Now families have privacy, but sliding glass doors and a window allow nurses to still monitor the babies closely from their desks positioned just outside the door. Additionally, the unit is now equipped with state-of-the-art technology that allows each nurse to carry a smart phone, where they can communicate with other providers, and receive notifications when their patient’s monitor alarms. The unit is also equipped with its own pharmacy and blood gas processing lab, nurses and respiratory therapists do not have to leave the unit to get the resources they need. These elements bring a new level of safety and efficiency to the care of their patients.

West Penn Hospital’s new NICU now provides a special area for one parent to room in with their infant.
Photo Credit: Allegheny Health Network

So many of the details put into the facility came with the families in mind. One thing that bonds most parents who spend time with children in the NICU is the stress and worry over their tiny baby being hospitalized. As a former NICU nurse myself, I know firsthand that caring for the families is an extension of the responsibilities the nurses have when carrying for the baby. One way the new design is helping support parents are the spacious private rooms which now include a pull-out bed that allows one parent to stay with their infant at all times. Each room has a small living space for the parent within view of the isolette where their baby receives their care from the nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists.

West Penn’s commitment to allowing parents to room in with their infant highlights their emphasis on including parents in the daily care of the baby while also encouraging their input and collaboration in the medical plan of care. The highly advanced lighting system in each room allows the room to be fully illuminated during procedures and care of the baby, but also provides warm, homey lighting for the parents in their space. Each room is also equipped with its own breast milk refrigerator, breast pump, and breast milk warmer and is a huge convenience to a breastfeeding mom.  For the moms and dads who stay with the baby there is also a great shared lounge and dining space just inside the entrance to the NICU. The space includes couches, TV, computers, a dining room table, and kitchenette for the parents and visitors to use. Additionally, there are private showers and locker areas for the parents who are spending the night. It is evident that a lot of thought went into ensuring parents had all the amenities of home during their extended stay in the hospital with their new baby. Austin’s Playroom still remains just adjacent to the NICU as well, a fun play space specifically designed for the siblings of the NICU patients.

A view of one of three of West Penn’s new “twin” NICU rooms.
Photo Credit: Allegheny Health Network

No parent wants to experience their newborn being admitted to the NICU.  However, parents can find some reassurance in knowing that West Penn’s NICU exists here in Pittsburgh, designed to provide the most sophisticated, family centered, lifesaving care to the most fragile patients and their families.