Gillian Hayes, Ph.D., FitBaby Principal Investigator, University of California, Irvine
As of September 1, I will be 30 weeks pregnant, making my baby 2 full months older than many of the patients in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). When I’m in the NICU recruiting families for our study, I regularly walk around and imagine those infants still living inside their mothers, and sometimes I imagine what it would be like for my baby to have already arrived. Even though the nurses and parents in the NICU have positive attitudes, those thoughts can sometimes be hard to bear. It really makes you realize just what it means to be premature. At my latest ultrasound, my baby weighed in at nearly 3 pounds. Some of the infants in the NICU come out closer to 1 pound. They are living in a harsh environment when they should still be floating peacefully in their perfectly temperature-controlled “greenhouses.” They are forced to eat and drink when their peers are still living in a world where there is no hunger and no thirst. They process their own waste, whereas my baby still lives comfortably with no gas, no stomach aches, and no need for diaper changes. The womb has evolved to serve as a perfect place for growth, with little external stimulation, a message that is driven home by the dim lighting throughout the ward and signs around the NICU asking for “library voices” because little brains are developing. These highly specialized units are filled with elaborate technologies that simulate the prenatal environment as closely as possible.
Some nights, when I leave the NICU, I take a long look at my belly, beg the baby to stay inside as long as possible, and sometimes cry. Some nights, though, I think of the moms — like one I met last week in the NICU — who are amazingly optimistic, ready to do anything to make sure their little fighters get their best chances at living life to the fullest. These are the families who inspire us to keep working, and they are the ones who make me think that even if my baby decides to come really early, he will be okay. Many of even the most premature infants survive and even thrive, especially with the help of the many physiological and developmental interventions they are now provided.
Of course, we won’t know the full impact of the interventions we are creating for months or even years. Our prospects look good though. Early intervention, particularly low-cost interventions that are enabled by the kinds of technologies that we, other Project HealthDesign teams, and many other researchers and developers are creating, have the chance to provide substantial societal benefits such as decreased spending on special education and hospitalizations, as well as more healthy babies and children. Even more important, however, is the idea that these technologies and interventions give real families the hope that their children’s lives may not be impacted significantly by prematurity, as well as the tools to fight the odds.