Thursday marked an historic day for Conemaugh Memorial’s Regional Intensive Care Nursery. 

The department, which is also referred to as the neonatal intensive care unit, opened its doors for the first time on July 19, 1974, becoming the only local intensive care unit for newborns.

On Thursday, the hospital’s staff, expecting parents, community members and Conemaugh Memorial NICU graduates came together for a community baby shower to celebrate the 45th anniversary milestone. 

“It’s a celebration,” said Stacy Roberts, marketing coordinator for Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center. “Today we are providing a lot of education for new moms, expecting parents and young families. And not just what we offer at Conemaugh, but then we also have some guests here from the community who are offering information about services they provide. 

“We also have some different activities and refreshments, and an area that folks can record their well wishes for families in the NICU, or if they’ve had a baby in the NICU, to kind of give words of encouragement,” she said. “It’s just a nice event to celebrate the milestone, but then also kind of moving forward with what we have in the community.”

While Roberts currently serves as the hospital’s marketing coordinator, she also has a personal connection to the Regional Intensive Care Nursery.

Roberts’ 3-year-old son Isaac was born five weeks early, and cared for in Conemaugh’s RICN for a week before being cleared to go home – a memory Roberts said she’ll never forget.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize we have a NICU until they have a baby in the NICU,” Roberts said. “It’s so important for our community, because if we didn’t have that, we would have had to been traveling back and forth to Pittsburgh.

“So with us having it here, my husband and I got to stay with Isaac. We were here all the time,” she said. “My family also wanted to come visit, and it was more convenient. If we had to run home, we could leave real quick and come back because we didn’t have to drive real far.

“It was just nice.”

Thursday’s anniversary event also featured a special presentation honoring Dr. John Chan, a neonatologist who has been with the program since 1987.

Chan has plans to retire from the department at the end of the month.

“Dr. Chan has been here the longest out of our physicians for the NICU,” Roberts said. “He’s retiring at the end of the month, so they wanted to do a recognition ceremony for him.” 

Prior to his surprise recognition, Chan said he was proud to see the RICN department evolve through the years as it continued to set the bar in regional care for premature and ill newborns.

“Forty-five years that we’ve existed here and done the work for the community, and quietly doing so to support the community and the children in the community,” Chan said. “We don’t advertise like Children’s Hospital, but we exist, and we’ve actually existed longer than (UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital) when this whole thing started.

“So we’ve been here quietly changing how things are done in neonatology, but always for our patients.”

Advances in technology have played a significant role in the care of ill and premature newborns, Chan said.

On July 16, 1999, Conemaugh’s RICN was recognized with the National Coalition on Healthcare award for being the first neonatal intensive care unit in the nation to implement developmental care for its patients. The hospital was also one of the first NICU’s to offer artificial surfactant, which is a substance in the lungs that helps to keep them inflated and allow for easy breathing.

In the 45 years since its opening, Conemaugh Memorial Staff has assisted in:

• Care for more than 10,000 newborn babies

• 1,099,512 feedings

• 106,942 baby baths

• 9,314 homemade blankets distributed.

“The day the doors were opened was a historic day for the region,” said Dr. Susan Williams, chief medical officer at Conemaugh Health System.

“We began offering life-saving, life-enhancing, and developmental care for our youngest patients. Premature and ill newborns no longer needed to be transferred out of town for care because we provide it right here at home.

“It’s easier for parents to stay with their babies, and for family and friends to visit and offer support,” she said. “The RICN changed the way Conemaugh provided care to new families.”

Ronald Fisher is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @FisherSince_82.