“We have to transfer your baby to another hospital.”

Those are the last words any parent, especially those of premature babies, want to hear. The emotional toll of a preterm birth, coupled with the idea of being separated from their hours-old newborn, can be a stressful experience for new parents.

But take heart: the lifeline for their loved one and our tiniest and youngest patients lie in the dedicated hands of the HCA Midwest Neonatal Transport Team – the largest provider of neonatal services in the Kansas City metropolitan area.

The team, which on Thursday celebrated its 10-year anniversary, has logged thousands of miles in all kinds of weather to transfer “their” sick babies to a hospital that provide a higher level of neonatal intensive care.

“When our team goes out there, we’re treating these kids like one of our own,” says Robert Holcomb, MD, neonatologist and medical director for the HCA Midwest Neonatal Transport Team. “We think about ‘what if this were my child’ and ‘what if I were in their shoes’.”

That’s why it’s important to have family-centered care right from the start, he says.

According to the March of Dimes, premature birth is the number one cause of death of babies in the United States. The neonatal transport team is just one group of caregivers who fight to help keep those babies alive.

Dr. Holcomb, who has more than 25 years of military and civilian critical care transport experience, explained how their life-saving work begins here:

  1. We move premature or critically ill babies who require specialized care. Any time a baby is premature or becomes sick, the hospital will refer the newborn to the NICU. In some cases, the NICU at that hospital does not offer the level of care that’s required for the critical nature of the baby. So, depending on how sick the infant is and what the different diagnoses are, we are consulted and ultimately will bring the baby to a hospital that can provide a higher echelon of care.
  2. The team is comprised of highly specialized neonatal caregivers. Imagine a table with four legs and each leg represents a member of the transport team. If one is not doing their job, the whole table is going to be weak. Fortunately, this table is stacked with a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse, a respiratory therapist, a neonatal nurse practitioner, and an emergency medical technician (EMT) with specialized training for the NICU transport team.
  3. We bring the NICU to the baby. We are equipped with portable ICUs, ventilators, monitors, IV pumps, different types of medication and even a travel lab to provide the high level of critical care for our babies. Once we arrive at the hospital, the infant’s level of care is immediately elevated to that of an intensive care unit.
  4. We transport by ground. The transport team arrives in a state-of-the-art ambulance outfitted with special equipment like cooling blankets, which can slow down brain injuries a baby may experience from a lack of oxygen. For the transport, babies are placed in an isolette that provides a warm, quiet environment and allows for monitoring the baby’s heart and lungs during the ambulance ride. We have traveled as far as 150 miles for a sick baby, bringing a vital regional transport and NICU service to the region.
  5. Giving birth prematurely is already stressful. It’s important to us to involve the families in all aspects of the transport. We explain the process and our equipment. We make sure they see their baby before we leave. We comfort and reassure them. We call to let them know the baby arrived safely and provide our initial evaluation. Our families have said the notion of transporting their newborn was scary at first; but once our team arrived, they started to feel better about the situation. When they come back for NICU reunions, they’re just as excited to see the transport team as they are their neonatal caregivers who treated their baby at the hospital.
  6. The “Golden Hour.” What our team does in those first hours of life can make a difference long-term for the baby. For instance, if we know there’s going to be an imminent premature delivery, we will attend the birth with the hospital staff and help them with the golden hour of the baby’s life.
  7. The twins were born unannounced at 26 weeks. hcaWe got the first baby stabilized and transported her to Overland Park Regional Medical Center – a level III NICU and the most advanced in the region. When the transport team returned for baby No. 2, we had just gotten her prepped and ready to go. Perfect timing. These two kids, Ava and Reese, did phenomenal. In response to their experience, their parents set up a nonprofit foundation to donate proceeds for the March of Dimes mission to help fight premature birth. We see the family at reunions and get a big hug every year. The girls are growing like weeds. (Right: Hilary McNeil and her twin daughters, Ava and Reese, tour the neonatal ambulance that transferred both twins to the Level III NICU at Overland Park Regional Medical Center.)
  8. Ten years in and nearly 2,000 transported preemies later. We are proud to have been able to successfully deliver all of our patients, even the sickest of the sick, to the receiving hospitals. We transfer an average of 250 critically ill infants each year, with a majority of them going to Overland Park Regional Medical Center. We’ve been able to improve our response times and better serve our community by transporting these premature babies to a hospital that provides a high level of neonatal intensive care.
  9. 1 in 8 babies are born prematurely. We’re passionate about educating and serving the community on the critical aspects of neonatal intensive care. Our Midwest Neonatal Transport Team sponsors and participates in various March of Dimes activities, including the March for Babies, and works with local schools to orient students about the field of transport medicine.
  10. The future for neonatal transport teams. We’re constantly looking at ways to improve the transport for our most fragile and vulnerable newborns. It always comes back to this: if we can start that high level of care in the field (and we do), we have a much more profound effect on that baby’s ultimate outcome. As opposed to waiting until the baby gets to the referred hospital’s NICU. The future is bright for these tiny patients in part due to our experienced NICU team and specialized healthcare experts who provide round-the-clock life-saving care.

HCA Midwest Health is Kansas City’s leading healthcare provider. The Midwest Neonatal Transport Team is based at Overland Park Regional Medical Center, part of HCA Midwest Health, and transfers critically ill infants from 13 counties across the region.