x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Thousands of premature babies owe their lives to Al Wasl Hospital

The neonatal intensive care unit at Al Wasl Hospital has won an award from Unicef for its breast-feeding encouragement of mums.

DUBAI // As a nurse reaches into an incubator with a small, milk-filled tube, ready to feed the premature baby inside, his tiny hands stretch out towards her.

In a nearby room, a one-kilogram baby boy born just two days earlier at 26 weeks gestation is connected to a ventilator. A friendly looking nurse dressed in a pink uniform carefully reads the screen overhead, then jots down notes about the baby's heart and respiratory rate readings.

Welcome to Al Wasl Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), the largest in the UAE.

"Our hospital is considered a tertiary hospital which means we accept high-risk cases in paediatric, gynaecology and obstetrics," said Dr Abdulla Al Khayat, CEO of Al Wasl Maternity and Paediatrics Hospital. "This is the first hospital built for paediatrics and gynaecology and we've had progressive development of our services since 1987."

In February, the institution earned a Baby Friendly Hospital status from Unicef. The award was given for the hospital's work to promote breast feeding.

"We instruct the mother from the first day that she should provide her breast milk so we can start feeding the babies when they can tolerate the feed," said Dr Mahmoud Saleh Elhalik, a consultant neonatologist at the hospital. "The mother is encouraged to come as often as she can to take care of the baby. We have a special breast feeding room for mothers who want to extract their milk."

Dr Elhalik noted an increase in the number of premature births at Al Wasl. Premature deliveries at the hospital last year were recorded at 15.21 per cent, up from 13.62 per cent in 2009.

The total births at the hospital last year were 6,713.

"There are of course many reasons for premature births. Sometimes it can be related to smoking, genetic disorders, cardiac problems in the baby, uncontrolled diabetes and blood pressure or other conditions," Dr Elhalik said.

"Another reason could be an increase in couples who receive IVF [in vitro fertilisation] and deliver twins and triplets."

Dr Al Khayat added: "Knowing that the prematurity rate is going up, every woman should get proper antenatal follow-up and care so that both mother and baby are healthy and safe."

The trained nurses at the NICU2 are ready to guide concerned parents along the way to ensure they are able to handle the needs of a premature baby.

"We are always here to monitor the babies. It is challenging for sure, but we are happy to see them grow, especially when they are discharged to their parents," said Smitha Varghese, an Indian nurse who has worked at the Al Wasl NICU for seven years. "When the parents come here, they are worried to see all the tubes, but we sit with them and give them support. We encourage the mother on kangaroo care and give the parents time to sit with their baby."

Kangaroo care refers to the holding of an infant skin-to-skin with an adult, similar to how certain marsupials carry their young.

While breast-feeding her baby boy recently at the NICU, Maria Belen Settenbri, 35, paused to ask a nurse if her infant was doing all right. The nurse nodded.

Mrs Settenbri, of Uruguay, said she was expecting to take her son, Joaquin Frank, home any time in the next week.

"It has been about 101 days since my baby was born on April 16 at 23 weeks. He weighed just 610 grams," she said.

Now, he weighs 1.9 kilograms.

"We arrived in Dubai in March and the following month I had the baby," she said, adding that she arrived with her Swiss husband and two-and-a-half year old daughter in March of this year. "I came from Switzerland, so I did not know what to expect being in an Arab country. He really is a miracle baby."

She said was first taken to a private hospital in Dubai, but doctors there advised her to go to Al Wasl.

"We are almost ready to go home now," she said. "I am really so appreciative for all they've done. The nurses, doctors and senior consultants were great. Being a journalist, I asked too many questions at times, but they still answered me. I don't know what would have happened if I were anywhere else."

The corridors of the NICU display the extent of gratitude that many other parents also feel. The parents present the hospital with frames showing their premature babies growing into healthy toddlers.

"When a baby reaches 1.8kg whereby he has no respiratory problems, is clinically stable and his mum can feed him, then he will be discharged from hospital," said Dr Elhalik.

"Once we see the babies get discharged after we have put them on the right track to be healthy, that is a great pleasure and a big compensation for all the hard work."