Construction set to begin on new NICU at Victoria Hospital

The current neonatal intensive care unit at the Victoria Hospital measures about 350 square feet. The new space will be more than ten times larger. Facebook photo.

A Saskatoon company has been chosen to build the expanded neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at the Victoria Hospital, the province announced Friday.

Following a request for proposals process, the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) chose Quorex Construction Services as the successful bidder on the $2 million project.

The funding for the project is coming from the Victoria Hospital Foundation, which raised funds for the expansion through its annual Give a Little Life Day.

The 2018 fundraiser collected over $1 million, the fundraiser’s highest ever total. Just two months later, in February, obstetrician Dr. Lalita Malhotra and her family donated $800,000 to push the campaign to its goal. The donation was made in memory of Dr. Malhotra’s late husband, Tilak.

Speaking to reporters when the project was announced, Dr. Erin Hamilton, the SHA’s physician executive for integrated northern health, explained that the new space won’t just be bigger, but will also be built to provide a higher level of care.

Prince Albert’s current unit is functioning as a level 2B unit, putting it just below a level 2 NICU.

“We’ve got very talented staff, but it was not designed as a 2b (unit),” she said. “This will be a level 2 nursery.”

The higher level of care means more babies and their mothers will be able to stay in Prince Albert, as opposed to being transferred to Regina or Saskatoon. It will also help to reduce the number of transfers that occur out of the province, as space will be less of an issue.

“This project, which will become a Level 2 NICU, is a key element of the Saskatchewan neonatal network,” Saskatchewan Health Authority Executive Director of Maternal and Children’s Provincial Programs Carrie Dornstauder said. “In February 2019, a provincial approach to addressing surge capacity for high risk maternal and newborn care was implemented. This approach has nearly eliminated out-of-province and out-of-country transports of mothers and infants, keeping our families here in Saskatchewan. We appreciate the support of this important project by the Saskatchewan Government.”

Construction is targeted to be done by July, with a plan for the new unit to become operational late next summer. The new space will be able to accommodate up to 11 medically fragile babies and their families. Prince Albert supports 1,500 births and is the third-largest high-risk maternal care site in Saskatchewan, including infants as low as 34 weeks of gestation.

The new space will be a significant expansion. The current unit is only 350 square feet and was converted from a supply closet. It routinely runs at double its capacity. The upgrade includes 4,000 square feet. Its fully-equipped baby bays will have a warmer, incubators, medical gases, monitors and a pullout bed and chair for the child’s mother.

“We’re very excited to get the job,” said Quorex president and CEO Corey Richter. “It means something to this community, so that makes it even more important for us.”

Quorex is no stranger to Prince Albert projects. Their website lists Montana’s, the Carlton Comprehensive expansion in 2014 and the renovation of the RCMP detachment north of the city as recent builds.

In a press release, the province said the project takes the planned expansion of the Victoria Hospital into account. The unit is designed to be flexible and adaptable.

A spokesperson said that means the space is designed so that it can continue as a NICU after the expansion or be repurposed for different use. If it is repurposed, the new NICU and its equipment will be moved elsewhere within the facility.

Victoria Hospital Foundation executive director Sherry Buckler said the foundation is “thrilled” to see the project move ahead.

“This is a high priority for our community,” she said. “Fortunately, the SHA agrees. We’re very proud to say that this entire project was championed and funded by the local community.”

While the new NICU was on the province’s radar, it wasn’t until the fundraising push that it ended up at the front of the queue.

“It’s a really good example of the power of philanthropy and how philanthropy can shape local health care,” she said.

“That just shows you how grassroots initiatives can really help shape local health care and we are really grateful and thankful of the donors who continue to support us on this.”

2020 fundraising campaign out to furnish new NICU

Friday’s announcement adds urgency to this year’s iteration of Give a Little Life Day, the annual fundraiser. While the construction of the new NICU has been approved, the foundation is out to ensure it has the latest and most up to date equipment possible.

Buckler said they’re hoping to raise $2.5 million to purchase furniture and equipment such as incubators, resuscitation equipment, the newest NICU monitors and the best furniture so moms and dads can sleep next to their baby and never leave their side.

“It’s a pretty lofty goal, we recognize that, but we can’t imagine anything more important right now,” Buckler said.

She added that the SHA has a contingency plan to phase in the new equipment should the foundation need more time to fundraise the entire $2.5 million sum.

“We have equipment presently but the lifespan is coming to its end and some is becoming obsolete,” Buckler said.

“We want to do the best we can. We know it’s not easy fundraising in this climate, but we know that babies are still being born who need our help and we want to see this very important project through.”

This year’s radiothon is set for December 4 and will be hosted at Mann Northway.

The car dealership’s principal, Mark Ripley, said they’re honoured to be able to host the annual fundraiser.

“It’s very important,” Ripley said, “Anyone who has a little kid or is involved will know how important it is for the community right now.”

Ripley said the goal is to minimize foot traffic, instead collecting donations using the service bay as a drive-thru.

He said it will be like “just like grabbing a Tim Horton’s Coffee.

“Anything from $5 to $1,000 would be much appreciated for this cause. It’s essential to the health of our hospital and our greater community. It’s super important, more this year than ever.”

Buckler knows fundraising is difficult during a pandemic, but added that COVID-19 has only emphasized the importance of having a proper NICU close by.

“Babies are being born in Prince Albert at our hospital that require advanced medical care, and they’re being cared for in a very cramped environment. During a pandemic, you can imagine the immense infection control measures in place and how difficult that must be for the patients and staff in that 350 square foot unit,” she said.

“If there’s anything this pandemic has taught is, it’s that community-focused local health care is more important than ever, particularly for our most vulnerable patients — our babies.”