Work set to begin on expanded neonatal unit

Lyle Karasiuk and Dr. Lalita Malhotra embrace during an event held on Sept. 27, 2019 to announce that work was about to begin on an expanded neonatal unit in Prince Albert. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) is about to begin initial work on the expanded neonatal intensive care unit in Prince Albert, a little over a year after the campaign to raise enough funds was launched.

Prince Albert Carlton MLA Joe Hargrave joined Victoria Hospital Foundation volunteers and staff, along with SHA officials and medical staff outside the foundation office Friday to announce that a request for proposals will go out in early October for design work on the expansion of the neonatal special care nursery space at the hospital.

The new space will increase the number of bassinets to 11 and transform the unit into a level 2 neonatal intensive care unit.

A target of $2.2 million was announced on Sept. 18 of last year to expand the hospital’s neonatal unit. The current unit sits at just 375 square feet and routinely runs at double its capacity.

More than 1,500 babies are born and cared for every year at the hospital. The neonatal unit is where a growing number of sick and premature infants are cared for. The new unit will be 4,000 square feet, more than ten times the size of the existing space. Its 11 private, fully-equipped baby bays will have warmer, incubators, medical gases, monitors and a pullout bed and chair for the child’s mother.

The health authority is in early talks with the Ronald McDonald Foundation and Ronald McDonald Family Room to include sleeping pods nearby for families.

The hospital foundation has originally launched the fundraising for the new unit last year with the expectation of taking three years to reach its goal.

Last year’s radiothon raised 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 Friday, 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.

Newborns with the most serious health concerns will still need to travel to Saskatoon or Regina, Hamilton said. Those two cities have level 3 nurseries.

“We want to keep moms and babies close together, close to their supports,” Hamilton said. “Expanding the capacity of the P.A .Victoria Hospital neonatal unit will allow us to do that and increase capacity across the province.”

Malhotra agreed. She said the improvements will also help to keep mothers healthy and happy, as the health of baby and mother are connected.

“It will help the babies and help with the mental and physical health of the mothers as well,” she said.

The new space is located below the current obstetrics ward in a portion of the hospital that was previously used for the facility’s materials management team, which handles supplies and procurement for the facility.

When the hospital’s laundry unit closed, that team was moved to the former laundry space, opening the area that will become the new NICU.

For now, the room sits mostly empty, filled with old, outdated beds the hospital has since replaced with newer models.

Joe Hargrave, left, tours the future space of the new neonatal unit alongside health officials on Sept. 27, 2019 (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

While plans for space are preliminary and rely heavily on what engineers and architects design, health region officials toured the Friday, pointing out where the beds would be located and outlining their preliminary vision for the NICU. The plan is to, as much as possible, use the existing infrastructure and features of the current space, including its abundance of natural light.

Hargrave assured both hospital foundation volunteers and gathered medical staff that the hard work going into space won’t be wasted when the province moves ahead with the hospital redevelopment.

“The neonatal special care nursery project will take the renovations or replacements into account,” Hargrave said. “They will be designed to be flexible and adaptable for future changes at the hospital.”

The province has promised to fully fund a rebuild or redevelopment of the Victoria Hospital. Pre-construction design work is ongoing.

For those who helped bring the dream of a larger NICU space to reality, seeing the project come together in a short period was gratifying.

“We were awe-inspired, shocked to walk away from our Give a Little Life telethon … with a million dollars,” said hospital foundation board chair Lyle Karasiuk.

“Through the hard work from a lot of people, and certainly the gift we received from the Malhotra family, were were able to raise $2.2 million in six months, a record amount.

Today, knowing the ministry is starting building by putting out RFPs, we will start to see the hard work that’s come to be — paint on the walls, a new space, and people in there. We’re so incredibly grateful.”

Malhotra is grateful too.

She was moved to tears Friday as she spoke about what the project would have meant to her late husband.

“It was my husband’s dream,” she said.

“He used to fly babies up to Edmonton so many times. He would say, ‘If we had the unit here, I could do all of this here.’ It had been there for many years in our hearts. I’m so glad. I’m sure he’s smiling.”