St. Francis delivers state-of-the-art NICU

Inside protective clear plastic cocoons, twin newborns Owen and Findley Abel slept.

The two babies were born premature at 32 weeks. Their tiny bodies were being kept alive with the ventilators, temperature control and feeding tubes.

For the first six days of their life, they had lived in their own private room in the neonatal intensive care unit at Franciscan St. Francis Health. More importantly, their mother, Jayme Abel, was able to stay at their side.

“They have everything right here with them. I can sit on either couch and see both babies, and be right here with them,” she said.

Franciscan St. Francis Health has opened its new neonatal intensive care unit to its first patients. In order to treat the most vulnerable of newborn babies, the hospital has revamped its rooms and implemented new technology to ensure those children survive their tenuous first days.

Private rooms, remote monitoring and a new lounge for parents is part of an effort to not only provide newborns with the best care but help make a stressful time for the parents more manageable.

“Parents are truly an integral part of the treatment. Sure, they don’t know how to start IVs, but they need to be a part of it,” said Dr. Paul Winchester, medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit at Franciscan St. Francis Health.

The new neonatal intensive care unit is the first phase of a $37 million expansion project at the Women and Children’s Center that will eventually include an expanded triage area, larger labor and delivery rooms, and more suites for moms after they give birth.

The neonatal intensive care unit increases from 20 beds to 30, while the number of beds in the postpartum area expands from 20 to 38.

The upgrade had been planned by the hospital during the past five years to accommodate the steady increase in the number of patients and deliveries made at the hospital, said Lori Warner, director of the Women and Children’s Center.

“What we’re trying to do is expand our vision and care for more women here on the southside,” she said. “We have been growing over time, and want to be able to continue to serve those people.”

The neonatal intensive care unit has become one of the most in-demand areas of the hospital. Franciscan St. Francis Health offers the only Level III neonatal intensive care unit on the southside.

The certification means that the hospital is equipped to treat babies that have been born earlier than 32 weeks or suffer from other critical illnesses.

“Many of these babies are just wanting to reach their due date,” Winchester said.

Winchester has been a neonatal and perinatal doctor for 37 years. For much of his career he’s operated in units that weighed heavily toward function to keep the baby alive, but not comforting either child or parents.

But that perspective has changed.

“These new designs represent a change in the paradigm in treating babies,” Winchester said. “Just four years ago, we were pretty focused on the intensive care needs of the baby, and the design of the nursery was entirely driven by the perspective of the providers, to be able to see them every minute.”

Designers of the neonatal intensive care unit have tried to remove some of the separation that neonatal intensive care units put up between mothers and their new babies.

With the creation of 24 private suites, parents can actually sleep in the same room as their newborn. Each private room will have a recliner and a couch that can be converted into a bed.

“We’re seeing a lot more parents stay overnight,” said Paula Stanfill, manager of the neonatal intensive care unit. “Before, they were welcome to do that, but they had to sit up in a chair, and that’s really hard for the families.”

The rooms contain equipment to keep the baby’s body temperature up, as well as heart monitors that can alert nurses by mobile device if there is a problem. Ventilators help the underdeveloped lungs work properly.

Some of the rooms are designed to handle twins and triplets. Each baby still has their own room, but the rooms are connected by doors to allow parents to go back and forth.

“Both babies have their own room, and they’re both private, and we have enough space so everyone can come and see them,” Abel said.

Abel’s twins were born Dec. 17. The Franklin resident spent much of their first week after birth sitting just a few feet away from them as their health improved and they started eating more.

Nurses let her take part in the care of her babies, allowing her to take their temperature, change their diapers and watch as they were fed.

“As a mom, you see them in their incubators, and you can’t really do anything with them. At least changing diapers, you feel like you’re taking care of them,” Abel said. 

Other amenities have been added to ease the stay for parents.

A private lounge offers showers and bath facilities, as well as food and drinks while they’re in the hospital.

Oftentimes, premature babies need to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit for weeks or months after their birth, meaning parents will go home well before their child is discharged.

But even after the parents leave the hospital, they can be connected to their child. A remote monitoring system allows for “virtual visitation,” so mom and dad can check in on their baby while he or she gets additional care.

“We can give parents a password, and they can go online and watch their baby by video camera,” Warner said. “It’s a nice reassurance for parents when they can’t be here all the time.”

Winchester also has created bedside teams of specialists, which visit each private room daily to update the baby’s condition, discuss treatment options moving forward and keep parents involved in the process.

“It acknowledges that we’re all a team, a family in this together, and everyone in this is vital,” Winchester said.

The new Women and Children’s Center has been opening in phases. The neonatal intensive care unit started admitting patients Nov. 11, and a new pediatrics wing opened in early December.

A maternal fetal medicine department, offering acupuncture, massages and rehabilitation, also has been open to the public.

Postpartum care, for mothers after they give birth, will be finished in March. The final aspect are the renovated labor and delivery rooms by the end of 2015.

“By the end, we’ll be able to have it a little more comfortable and family-friendly,” Warner said.

At a glance

Franciscan St. Francis Health

Women and Children’s Center upgrade

Cost: $37 million

Neonatal intensive care unit

  • Only Level III NICU on the southside of Indianapolis, designed for babies that have been born earlier than 32 weeks or suffer from other critical illnesses.
  • 24 private rooms with a couch that can be converted to a bed
  • Private lounge with shower and bath facilities for parents
  • Video system provides “virtual visitation” when parents are present at the hospital.

Other features:

  • Nine larger, more kid-friendly rooms in the refurbished pediatrics wing.
  • Labor and delivery adding 12 new delivery and patient rooms
  • Construction ongoing on 36 postpartum suites.

Expected completion date: NICU and pediatrics wings are currently open, as well as some of the labor and delivery rooms. Rest of the project expected to be complete by the end of 2015.

Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.