Sentara RMH Medical Center has begun a process to allow the hospital to increase services and capacity at its intensive care nursery for premature babies, according to Cathy Slusher, medical director of the hospital’s Family Birth Place.

“We definitely feel the need is here, and we feel the board is going to be supportive of that,” Slusher said, referring to the Virginia Board of Health.

The hospital must go through an approval process through the Virginia Department of Health to establish a specialty neonatal intensive care unit.

The initiative would enable Sentara RMH staff to care for premature babies 28 weeks and older, along with increasing the number bassinets from six to 11.

“This is mostly respiratory or feeding issues for premature babies,” Slusher said.

The expansion would not require new buildings, but the nursery would be renovated, according to Slusher.

With its intermediate acuity nursery, Sentara RMH can only treat premature babies 36 weeks or older.

Last year, over 100 mothers either had to travel to another hospital to give birth or had their child transported to another hospital, according to Slusher.

In some situations, premature babies are sent to another hospital for care, even while their mother is still recovering at Sentara RMH, Slusher said.

“We’re trying to eliminate all of that nonsense and keep families together and keep moms and babies together,” she said.

And when Sentara RMH staff realizes that they are unable to treat a patient, they must arrange for medical attention at other institutions across the state.

The expansion will reduce that need, she said.

“That’s the biggest thing — we don’t have to waste time finding them somewhere else,” Slusher said. “Normally, they go to [the University of Virginia Medical Center], but if U.Va.’s full, we have to call [Winchester Medical Center]. If Winchester’s full, we gotta call [Carilion] Roanoke and if Roanoke’s full, we have to call Fairfax.”

Slusher said in one case, a pregnant woman had to go to U.Va. four times in case she needed to give birth. She was eventually able to delivery her baby at Sentara RMH.

“Those stories happen,” Slusher said. “That’s four transportation fees and four out-of-community hospital stays that could have been averted.”

The growth in need isn’t uncommon, Slusher said, and is increasing along with the local population. Other Virginia hospitals are also seeing an increase in need for the services, according to Slusher.

“As they are filling up, we can now become our own center to take care of our own, but possible to take other babies from outside as needed,” she said.

The process for Sentara RMH to expand services and space began when it submitted a letter of intent to the state for a certificate of public need.

In January, the hospital will submit the actual application, Slusher said.

The application will be reviewed by the Board of Health, and there will be hearings regarding the expansion, she said.

Slusher said she anticipates the board to approve Sentara RMH’s application, and the new services and space are slated to become available in late 2020 or early 2021.

Contact Ian Munro at 574-6278 or imunro@dnronline.com. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanMunroDNR

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