There is one wedding anniversary that always stands out for Dr. Lalita Malhotra.
It wasn’t because of the presents, or parties, or the well-wishes from family and friends. It was because her husband, the late Dr. Tilak Malhotra, had to make three trips to Edmonton from their home in Prince Albert.
The reason? Three recently born babies needed medical care the hospital in Prince Albert couldn’t provide, so Tilak took to the air three times with three different mothers and flew with them to a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in Alberta where they received the help they needed.
“My husband always wanted a NICU in Prince Albert,” an emotional Lalita said. “He always said, ‘if we had our own NICU, we would not have to transfer babies and moms to Saskatoon, Regina, or Edmonton…. Then the babies and the mothers will stay together and we could look after them here.’”
The Malhotras arrived in Prince Albert in 1975, and for 20 years Tilak was Prince Albert’s only pediatrician. He passed away in July 2017, but five years later his dream became a reality.
Victoria Hospital officially has its own NICU, now called the Drs. Tilak and Lalita Malhotra NICU.
“It’s a very emotional day today,” Lalita said prior to the ribbon cutting on Sept. 8.
“Thank you to everyone who has worked so hard to make this dream come true.”
Although the new NICU is based in Prince Albert, its effects will be felt all across the province.
Interim Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) CEO Andrew Will said the facility will help take the strain off of similar units in Saskatoon and Regina. It will also provide timely and professional care for families in northern Saskatchewan, something Will said is vital as the province works towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
Like Malhotra, Will was visibly emotional at the opening ceremony. The tour brought back memories from 25 years ago when his daughter was born pre-mature, and he was one of many frightened and exhausted parents anxiously awaiting news and updates.
“You were so scared about this fragile new baby,” Will remembered. “You’re heading into this NICU, which is a very busy, active place. You didn’t really feel welcome because these bassinets were so close to each other, so you didn’t really feel like you belonged in the space. It was just emotional.
“It was scary, and you knew you were dependent on the healthcare providers to keep your baby alive. You were just praying and hoping for the best.”
The new Prince Albert facility was designed using Baby-Friendly Initiative Principles, a family-centered approach that Will said will allow healthcare professionals to provide seamless care as close to home as possible.
The 4,000 square ft. clinical space can provide care for up to 11 medically fragile newborns and their families. Doctors deliver an average of 1,500 babies in Victoria Hospital every year.
The Victoria Hospital Foundation raised more than $4 million to help build the facility. Foundation executive director Cody Barnett credited local residents for their dedication and support during the opening.
“The Malhotra NICU for the North is really a testament to what Prince Albert and the surrounding communities can do when we band together,” he said.
“This unit will advance the level of care here in Prince Albert, meaning families can remain closer to home while their baby receives care. Thanks to the support of donors, these medically fragile babies will have their care-giver by their side to nurture them and help them thrive.”
The Victoria Hospital Foundation announced its NICU fundraising campaign in September 2018. At the time, organizers estimated it would take three years to reach their $2.2 million goal.
That all changed just a few months later, when the Malhotra family contributed $800,000, pushing the project past its fundraising goal years earlier than expected.
On Sept. 8, Dr. Lalita Malhotra called the new NICU “a tribute to the mothers of the north” who have become more like family than patients.
“I’ve had the privilege of knowing three generations—sometimes more—of the family and the mothers who I have delivered,” she said.
“I found my home here. My relationship with my patients has never been a daughter or a patient. It’s been a mother, a grandmother, a friend, and the list goes on.
“I have learned from my patients at times, healed from my patients. Every celebration and trauma in my life I have shared with my patients. We have cried. We have laughed together for the past 45 years.”
Dr. Lalita Malhotra received the nickname Angel of the North after helping deliver more than 13,000 babies.
Nearly 1,000 donors contributed to the Victoria Hospital’s NICU fundraising campaign.