Expanded Calgary facility for critically-ill newborns receives $10M donation

Scarlett Fraser spent about 113 days in the neonatal unit at the Foothills Medical Centre after she was born 16 weeks early. She's now five years old. (Calgary Health Foundation - image credit)
Scarlett Fraser spent about 113 days in the neonatal unit at the Foothills Medical Centre after she was born 16 weeks early. She's now five years old. (Calgary Health Foundation - image credit)

Katie Fraser says her daughter, Scarlett, weighed about the same as a block and a half of butter at birth.

At just 680 grams, Scarlett was born 16-weeks premature, and Fraser says one of her first thoughts was that a baby so small wouldn't be able to survive.

But five years later, Scarlett has not only survived, she's thriving, Fraser says. And she attributes much of her daughter's success to the staff at the neonatal intensive care unit at Foothills Medical Centre.

"Now, instead of being parents to a micro-preemie, we're parents of a pretty fantastic five-year-old girl who runs us in laps," Fraser said.

She told her story at a ceremony Wednesday celebrating the final funds being raised for a renovated, two-storey NICU at the hospital with 58 beds for critically-ill newborns.

The Taylor Family Foundation contributed $10 million, completing a $66-million fundraising campaign led by the Calgary Health Foundation.

The upgraded facility will be named the Taylor Family Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

"We are thrilled to be a part of this campaign knowing that this contribution will have a meaningful impact for the future of families and their babies throughout southern Alberta," said Don Taylor of the Taylor Family Foundation in a news release.

CBC
CBC

Alberta Health Services and the Government of Alberta also committed funds to the project, which aimed to raise $152 million to transform care for newborns and their families in the province.

"This donation is going to impact families for decades to come, like ours. It will be immeasurable what you have done for our city and for the babies in this city," Fraser said.

The improved unit is much needed in southern Alberta, where one in eight babies is born critically ill or preterm, according to the Calgary Health Foundation. Nationally, that ratio is one in 10. Part of the funds gathered for the campaign will go toward further investigating the factors involved.

"We don't really understand what all the causes of preterm birth are in general," said Dr. Alixe Howlett, section chief for the Calgary zone of neonatology, in an interview on The Homestretch.

"I know we do have a high birth rate, and we know that 10 per cent of all babies will need some intensive care, whether it's for a few hours or up to a few months. So with a high birth rate, we are going to see more kids coming through our units."

Currently, the 38-bed NICU at Foothills Medical Centre sees the sickest babies and the most high-risk deliveries in southern Alberta. It's one of the busiest in Canada, Howlett says, and yet it's one of the smallest, about one-third smaller than comparable facilities across the country.

Some children end up being transferred to other hospitals in the city to allow space for the highest-risk cases.

CBC
CBC

The unit features plenty of open space, Howlett says, and there are many ways the new space can better accommodate families and better support babies' development.

"We are hoping to build a bigger unit with many more single family rooms, meaning rooms where it's the baby and their family housed together," she said.

"It's awfully hard to see a mom who's just delivered, you know, sitting in a chair at the bedside. You'd really love to have something a bit more comfortable for her, a little bit more privacy to be able to pump breast milk."

She says the babies' brains will also benefit from a secluded space where they can be with their parents. Premature babies' brains are developing at a rapid pace, she says, and can be helped along the way when the conditions are right.

"Having parents hold them, breastfeed them, is very important. Also having the right sounds. We don't want a baby to be in silence, but we don't want them to be exposed to excessive noise and other monitors," she said.

"So having a great big new space that's really designed for how we practise neonatology nowadays would be quite amazing."

The new unit will also offer an integrated care program, which helps to get parents more involved in their child's treatment and better prepares them for the transition back home, according to the news release.

As for next steps, Howlett says she's hoping planning will begin soon.

"I think the fun part is about to begin."