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Kalispell Regional Healthcare's NICU turns eleven years old

Celebrating new babies and a great care team


On February 2, KRH’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) will be celebrating its 11th birthday. Back in the fall of 2007, KRH announced that they would be expanding their birthing center to include a NICU largely due to the exploding growth rate of the Flathead Valley. Prior to that, babies born prematurely at KRH would be referred to NICUs in Great Falls, Missoula or Billings. That created both an emotional and financial strain on the families. Often times a premature baby will be hospitalized for weeks and even months. The costs of travel combined with the family separations were incredibly difficult on those affected. On February 2, 2008, the NICU opened up with the goal of providing Flathead Valley residents with quality neonatal care locally and has been going strong ever since.

There have been a lot of changes over the course of 11 years. Huge strides have been made towards advancing the care that can be provided. “It’s a completely different NICU than it used to be back then,” says Dr. Kristin Veneman, DO. “We now have neurosurgery as well as other surgeries; we can do a lot more.” Dr. Veneman, a neonatologist at the NICU, also notes that the gestational age has gotten much lower as well. Back when it first opened, they could work with 32 weeks and above. Today, they’re able to work with 23 weeks and above, helping babies born as small as one pound. Just this past November, the NICU saw its youngest survivor to date. And now, they’re currently caring for the smallest patient (680 grams) they’ve ever had.

The NICU also played a large role in the new Montana Children’s Medical Center set to open later this year. In order to be a level III NICU (according to the American Academy of Pediatrics), they needed to have pediatric surgeons and a maternal fetal medicine (MFM) position available. “We didn’t have any of those positions available at the time and so that’s what kind of got the ball rolling with Montana Children’s,” said Dr. Veneman. “From there it just kind of snowballed into recruiting pediatric subspecialists and then building a new building and then a whole new medical center.” Now they have two pediatric surgeons, two MFM specialists and even a pediatric neurosurgeon.

There have been major technological and medicinal advancements made during the past 11 years that have completely transformed the NICU into what it is today. Specialized equipment, supplies, medications as well as advanced education and training have drastically improved the quality of the neonatal care offered at KRH. Some notable advancements include:

  • More advanced ventilators and other equipment, made to be gentler with some of the smallest babies.

  • The use of transcutaneous (through the skin) monitoring to check carbon dioxide levels rather than with blood tests.

  • Therapeutic hypothermia, which allows babies with decreased blood flow and oxygen while in the womb to be cooled down to reduce brain injuries.

  • Inhaled Nitric Oxide, a gas that assists newborns with hypoxemic respiratory failure with their breathing.

  • Baby cameras, which allow parents to log into password protected devices to view their babies any time they wish.

Such dire advancements in care have allowed KRH to take on the increasing number of cases over the years. Not only has the total number of babies increased (they’re currently seeing approximately 160 babies a year), but the total number of types of cases they can treat has increased as well. There has been an increase in opiate drug use nationwide, so Montana is seeing babies who require treatment for withdrawal, something that KRH now treats regularly. And ever since MFM physicians who specialize in high risk pregnancies were added, there have been more cases involving genetic conditions/anomalies, some requiring surgery. They’ve also been able to treat many more surgical and neurosurgical cases now that they have a staff that specializes in those fields. “We have more pediatric subspecialists than anyone else in the state,” continues Dr. Veneman. “Other places can’t do what we can do here.” And as a result, KRH now gets referrals from all over the state. In just 11 years, they’ve transformed from having to send all neonatal cases away for treatment to being a referral center for all sorts of pediatric specialties.

There have been some great programs started at the NICU over the years as well including Reach Out and Read and Earn While You Learn, both of which have gained state and national attention. Others services include donor milk/Prolacta (which helps prevent preemies from getting a sometimes fatal infection of the intestines) and telemedicine, where NICU staff are on call via robot for multiple different rural hospitals should they need assistance. Dr. Veneman is also starting a palliative care program called Forget Me Not, for babies who die in utero, at birth, or in the days, weeks and months after. For more information on some of these programs visit the NICU family-centered services page.

There will be a small birthday celebration at the NICU on Saturday, February 2 complete with cake and decorations. If you wish to show your appreciation for the NICU and all they do for the community, you can donate something from their birthday wish list:

  • New board books

  • Baby toys for up to 3 months

  • Clothes – preemie, newborn, 3 months

  • Gift cards for parents – gas, dinner, movies

  • Snacks

  • Laundry detergent

  • Hygiene kits (travel size) for men and women

  • Slings/wraps

  • Lullaby CDs

  • Small recorders for families to record reading, singing, talking

  • Scrapbooking supplies

  • Preemie milestone stickers

  • MamaRoo infant seats

Learn more

Caring for the tiniest babies is a big job! The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, at Kalispell Regional Medical Center provides care to newborns and infants with conditions requiring advanced medical treatment. Check out our website for more details.