Caring for the tiniest patients in the NICU

10% to 15% of all babies born in the United States spend time in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit or NICU
Published: Jan. 25, 2023 at 7:37 PM CST
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - 10% to 15% of all babies born in the United States spend time in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit or NICU according to the National Library of Medicine.

In Wausau, some of the youngest newborns are cared for at Aspirus’ Level III NICU. A NICU offers one of four levels of care, specializing in caring for ill or premature infants and newborns.

Level I (Well Newborn Nursery) care for:

  • Babies who are born on time (at about 40 weeks) who are stable (for example, they can breathe on their own and can maintain their body temperature)
  • Babies who are born at 35 to 37 weeks and are stable
  • Babies who are sick or born before 35 weeks, but only until they can be moved to a nursery with a higher level of care

Level II (Special Care Nursery) care for:

  • Babies who are born before 32 weeks or who weigh less than 3.3 pounds, but only until they can be moved to a nursery that provides a higher level of care.
  • Babies who have just gotten out of a neonatal intensive care unit (also called NICU) are growing and doing well before being able to go home.
  • Babies who need equipment to help them breathe. These babies should stay in this kind of nursery only for about 24 hours or less; if they need breathing help longer, they should be moved to a higher level of care.

Level III (NICU) care for:

  • Babies who are born before 32 weeks and weigh less than 3.3 pounds
  • Babies of any age or weight who are critically ill.
  • Babies who need equipment to help them breathe to stay alive.
  • Babies who may need surgery.

Level IV (Regional NICU) care for:

  • Babies who may need special surgery for birth defects and other disorders.

Aspirus Neonatologist M.D. Michael Kuklinski said they care for babies born as young as 23 weeks. Kuklinski said when he began his career, he was caring for about three babies in the NICU at a time. That grew to about 7 before the NICU upgraded its capabilities and the number of babies they’ve been able to help has also grown.

“Since about May when our new area opened we’ve been routinely 13 to 14 on average. As time has gone on as our units have grown as our team has grown,” said Kuklinski. “It’s good to know that you’re helping literally twice as many babies as you used to.”

Aspirus Wausau Hospital is the region’s only single-family room model for critically ill babies. Meaning parents can stay with their child 24/7. To be a level 3 you have to have certain capabilities like being able to help the infants breathe. They can ventilate both with invasive and noninvasive technologies.

Kuklinski said it also takes a large team with different specialties. For example, a neonatologist, pharmacist, respiratory therapist, and nurse practitioner are all part of the care team. Caring for the tiniest patient has always been his passion, but he said it does come with challenges. He said he and the other team members never forget the ones that don’t make it.

The ones he helps to go on to healthy lives make it all worth it though. “When you take a step back, and you say what are we doing here? It makes you feel good. it makes you feel like you’re helping,” said Kuklinski.

Kuklinski said many families travel from outside of Wausau to come to their NICU because that level of care they’d have to travel farther away for care. The next closest Level III facility is in Marshfield.