SANTA BARBARA COUNTY – Elena Arroyo holds her baby daughter Sophia, cared for at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit or NICU.
"We actually felt really good knowing that our little girl was going to be here and we could take her home", Arroyo says.
Stephanie Ralston holds a graduation picture of her now 25 year old daughter Courtney, the first prematurely born baby cared for at Cottage NICU 25 years ago which has since seen more than 8,000 babies from across the Central Coast.
"Before having this, all of these children were transported out of the area, largely to Los Angeles or to Fresno", says Cottage NICU founder and Medical Director Dr. Steven Barkley, "a significant number of these children would not survive that transfer."
It's estimated as many as ten percent of all newborn babies require intensive care at birth.
With the advent of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, more babies are leaving the hospital healthy.
Not all babies admitted to the NICU are born pre-maturely; about half are full-term babies with some medical complication at birth.
Of the three thousand babies born every year at Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria, an estimated 1 in 10 will end up in Marian's NICU which opened only a couple of years ago.
"That's 300 babies that would have to be sent somewhere else", says Marian NICU Medical Director Dr. Eddie Alderete, "or 300 mothers in some cases."
Dr. Alderete says a "phenomenal" evolution in NICU technology, equipment, strategy, nutrition and medication is saving more lives.
"It's night and day what we can do today", Dr. Alderete says, "we do it with less invasiveness, we are gentler, we actually do less but accomplish more because of better technology."
Specially trained nurses and therapists also play a vital role in the NICU's success.
"When the kids come back to see us, that's the most rewarding part of this job", says Cottage NICU veteran nurse Nancy Peart, "to see these kids go on to have productive lives, it's terrific."
And to see more mothers like Elena Arroyo go home with a bundle of joy in their arms.
"It's the most fantastic feeling in the world", Arroyo says.
Both Cottage and Marian NICU's have more than 20 beds that are always about half full.
Last October, the Marian NICU received final state accreditation for providing the highest level of neonatal and pediatric services.
Cottage Children's Hospital has the only Level III NICU between Santa Barbara and the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Level III designation is based on the availability at Cottage of board-certified pediatric surgery, anesthesiology and other children's sub-specialists.
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