Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the McMaster Children’s Hospital NICU
Hamilton Health Sciences’ (HHS) McMaster Children’s Hospital (MCH) is home to the country’s largest Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and is proud to celebrate its 50th year of dedicated services to our youngest patients.
The NICU is a community of over 400 staff and physicians. This includes nurses, respiratory therapists, occupational therapists, pharmacists, and many other allied health and clinical support staff. Since 1973, the NICU has grown to be the largest of its kind in Canada.
“For the last 50 years, our NICU has been home to thousands of tiny young patients with serious health issues. Our staff, physicians, and allied health-care workers bring their expertise and compassion to work every day helping infants get the best possible start in life,” says Bruce Squires, MCH president. “In our unique position within a leading children’s hospital co-located with a regional tertiary care obstetrical centre, our NICU has grown into the largest in Canada and provides outstanding care to families across all of south-central Ontario. It brings me great pleasure to recognize the MCH NICU on its 50th anniversary.”
Cheers to 50 years!
The NICU and regional Perinatal Unit first opened in 1973 at what was then called McMaster Hospital. At the time, it wasn’t exclusively a pediatric hospital, but many premature infants and specialists in Hamilton were moved to this location. It was also the first time ever, high-risk mothers and premature babies were to be treated as one unit. These individuals were transferred to the Perinatal Unit to give birth, instead of the baby being transferred after birth.
Many were involved in the early years of establishing this unit including Dr. Jack Sinclair, head of neonatology, along with dedicated neonatologists Dr. John Watts, Dr. Chap Yeung, Dr. Saroj Saigal, and Dr. Bosco Paes. Together, they helped to shape what has now become the primary location of care for premature babies across the region.
Today, MCH is also the only NICU in Canada to include Physician Assistants as part of the medical team, a role that was introduced in 2019. Working under a medical directive, Physician Assistants perform medical procedures, attend deliveries and actively participate in daily patient medical management.
Continuing care after discharge
When the NICU opened, the Neonatal Follow-Up Clinic was also created to provide support to premature infants after they were discharged. What started as a team of two doctors, has now expanded over the decades to include physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, a psychometrician, dietician, nurse practitioner, and an additional developmental pediatrician.
Neonatologist Dr. Saroj Saigal was assigned to organize this follow-up care and has had a 50-year, and counting, career studying the impact of premature birth as children grow. Her research has had a significant impact on how care is provided to these infants.
“Over the past 50 years, no other field has made such significant advancements in the survival and care of patients than neonatology,” says Saigal. “It has been an exciting and rewarding journey and there’s still so much to learn.”
While Saigal has been part of the NICU since its formation, there are many staff that have spent their careers there. Here’s what some of them have to say about their experiences.
Rebecca Thomas, Clinical Manager
Rebecca Thomas is one of the NICU’s clinical managers. She started as a nursing student in 2004, then became a bedside registered nurse (RN), admission RN, charge RN, and assistant transport RN in the NICU. Thomas then experienced the team’s care firsthand when her son was born 6 weeks early. “Not a day goes by that I am not thankful for this place and our team,” Thomas says.
When she returned from maternity leave in 2014, she embarked on her first formal leadership role as the unit’s clinical leader and became one of two unit managers this past October. “It’s safe to say I love this place and our people – I am invested in our care, our team and our work moving forward,” says Thomas.
“It’s an honour to work with an incredibly hard-working group of individuals who, daily, give themselves relentlessly, graciously, creatively in service of the sickest babies in our community.”
Jennifer Wilson, Nurse Practitioner
Jennifer Wilson has been a nurse practitioner (NP) in the NICU since 1989 when McMaster University started the innovative graduate degree program which allowed her to make the transition from an RN to an NP.
“It was a great program and allowed for a smooth transition into what is a highly specialized area of nursing,” says Wilson. “I had always planned to do hospital nursing for a year and then go into public health, but I got hooked and am now entering my 35th year here!”
NPs have a wide range of specialized skills. They attend high-risk deliveries, interpret x-rays, and write medical orders for nutrition, medications, and lab tests. They can perform procedures such as umbilical lines, intubations, and chest tubes as well as develop care and discharge plans and participate in family meetings.
“My favourite part of my role is working with a multi-disciplinary team and the families to provide the best possible outcomes for these babies,” says Wilson. “I have had many memorable moments over the years, but I love when our graduates come back to visit us. It’s so wonderful to see how much they, and their parents, have blossomed!”
Kimberley Simmons, Registered Nurse
Kimberley Simmons has always had an interest in premature babies. She graduated from nursing school in 1984 and started her career in the NICU the following year.
“Funny enough, in kindergarten when we were asked to do a small project on what we wanted to be when we grew up, I wrote that I wanted to be a nurse who took care of sick babies in ‘incubators’,” says Simmons.
During her 37 years, Simmons has been in many different roles including admission, charge nurse, and transport nurse.
“Working at the bedside with families and mentoring new staff are what I enjoy most,” she says. “Some of my more memorable moments over the years have been working with families who have had very critically ill babies; supporting the family through these difficult times, and eventually helping them learn how to care for their baby until they can be successfully discharged home.”
Simmons continues to say that ultimately the best thing about working in the NICU is her incredibly supportive co-workers.
“I feel blessed over the years to have had a career in the NICU that I have enjoyed so much, and a place where I have made many wonderful memories along with lifelong friendships,” she says.
Steve Turner, NICU Nurse Practitioner Lead
Steve started his nursing career in 1989. In 1999, after returning to school in the United States and expanding his skill set to include neonatal transport nursing, he joined the NICU at MCH.
“The NICU was a small, cramped 33-bed unit when I started here,” says Turner. “I’ve watched the neonatology field mature and our unit grow to our current 72 beds. Things like technology, medical and surgical techniques, and neonatal research have all advanced at incredible rates over the past 20 years.”
Steve became a nurse practitioner (NP) in 2002 and is now the inaugural NP Lead, where he divides his time between clinical and administrative responsibilities to aid with the success of the unit.
On a more personal level, Steve’s son was a patient of his in the NICU before he adopted him. “Since this little infant needed a home, my wife and I decided to foster him. Ultimately, we were able to adopt him. It gave a new definition to ‘bringing your work home with you’.”
Turner adds, “Some might question if miracles really happen. I know that they do because I’ve seen them, in NICU!”
Karen Beattie, Volunteer Parent Partner
Karen began volunteering in 2016 in the NICU and is the chairperson of the Family Advisory Committee for McMaster Children’s Hospital. When MCH joined a collaborative approach to have a parent representative involved in supporting families, the medical director at the time reached out to Karen and offered this role.
“It was truly an honour to take on this position, and advocate for families in the NICU,” says Beattie. “The NICU didn’t have this before, and I was excited to be part of this”.
Her son Freddie became a patient in the NICU in October 2013, when he was born at 29 weeks old and weighed 830 grams.
Beattie works with the NICU team on several initiatives supporting families. “Having a parent volunteer helps staff understand the parent perspective,” she says.
“The NICU does miraculous things, and being part of the support that extends to families during their hardest times is truly a privilege. I’m hoping to grow the parent partner program over the next few years, and have more parents like myself working alongside staff to better parents’ experience at the NICU.”