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State-of-the-art technology grants sight to NICU babies

August 20, 2018

"One of the hardest days is the day that you're discharged from the hospital, but have to leave your baby behind," says Katelyn Farrell. "I cried the whole way home."

Katelyn has taken that long ride twice – temporarily leaving a piece of her heart with a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Baystate Children’s Hospital in 2016 and again this year. Her now two year old daughter, Mackenzie, was born at 28 weeks gestation, and spent 61 days in the NICU.

Her son, Landon, born this spring at 31 weeks, spent 39 days in the unit. Having a clinical background doesn’t make it easier, says Katelyn, who is a nurse in the post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) at Baystate Medical Center – but it does deliver appreciation for what’s at stake.

“No matter how long your baby is in the NICU, it seems like an eternity – and every day is a roller coaster,” says Katelyn. “He’s not supposed to be out in the world yet, not supposed to have to breathe or eat on his own yet or regulate his own body temperature. Things can change from hour to hour as the staff monitors every system and every function.”

Sight-preserving baby pictures

Among other concerns, the NICU team keeps a close eye on the developing vision of the babies in its care.

“Extremely premature infants are at risk for retinopathy of prematurity, a very serious condition caused by abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eye,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Shenberger of Baystate Children’s Hospital. “The worst-case scenario is the imminent risk of a detached retina, for which a baby would need immediate injection therapy or surgery. It’s critical to monitor for aberrant growth of blood vessels, on a weekly or biweekly basis, until the retina matures at about two months of age.”

Since mid-April, the ICON Retinal Imaging Platform has been used to screen babies in Baystate’s NICU for this potentially blinding condition. Purchase of the state-of-the-art technology was fully funded by proceeds from the Max Classic Golf Tournament for Baystate Children’s Hospital, an event run by Baystate Health Foundation.

“Historically, pediatric ophthalmologists have viewed babies’ retinas by shining a light into their dilated eyes – as you might experience in a standard eye exam,” says Shenberger. “The results are obtained only during direct observation and – while chart notes are as complete and descriptive as possible – this approach yields no recorded images to provide a visual record of blood vessel growth over time.”

“The ICON camera records high-resolution images that can be viewed in progression, allowing us to see what’s changed between scans,” he continues. “It also allows us to take a closer look at specific areas of the eye, and in particular offers excellent views of the edge of the retina, which is the last to mature.”

In addition to delivering new levels of diagnostic precision, the images can be transmitted digitally to consulting physicians from outside of the area and can be included in a child’s medical record if a family relocates. And, says Shenberger, the ICON technology seems to enhance quality of life for infants in the NICU, who are coping with the transition from the tranquility of life in utero to a high-tech clinical environment.

“The ICON test takes a fraction longer,” he says, “but it seems a little less stressful for most babies.”

Everyday miracles

For the Farrell family, the stress of NICU life is behind them. Now that Landon is home, they are adjusting to life as a family of four. Katelyn and her husband, Ethan, are grateful for the support of their family and friends – and their very first support team at Baystate Children’s Hospital.

“Every baby in the NICU represents nothing short of a miracle,” says Katelyn. “They’re so small and helpless, and while you spend as much time as possible with them in the unit, you can’t be there every minute – especially if you have a toddler at home, as we did. The only thing that makes the experience a little easier is knowing that your baby is in such good hands. It’s hard to put into words how much everyone on the NICU team has meant to our family.”

Learn more about how you can support advances like the ICON Retinal Imaging Platform through the Baystate Health Foundation.