New moms in Howard County will finally get to see daylight today when the hospital opens its revamped and relocated labor and delivery area and neonatal intensive care unit.
Hidden in the basement for the past 20 years, the birthing rooms have been moved to the second floor above the recently opened emergency department. All have windows, along with a lot of luxury and high-tech equipment to make the experience as painless as possible.
"An awful lot of babies are born in this hospital," said Mary Hogan, chairwoman of obstetrics and gynecology at Howard County General. "We were too crowded downstairs, and it was really painful for patients. We needed to make families happier, more comfortable."
The hospital delivers the fifth-highest number of babies in the state - 3,117 in fiscal year 2002, which ended June 30 - and all of the babies born in Howard County, surpassing the combined deliveries at Johns Hopkins Hospital and its Bayview Medical Center.
The renovations make up the third phase of a $34 million expansion and upgrade designed to bring the hospital up to speed with the growing demands and population of Howard County.
Last year, it unveiled a new intensive care unit. The new emergency department came next, opening in July, and next year, a new diagnostic imaging center will make its debut, completing the first phase of the hospital's strategic plan. The second phase is under way and expected to cost more than $50 million.
The new labor and delivery unit is twice the size of the old one, and has 12 private delivery rooms, each with a bathroom, compact disc player, videocassette recorder and television. Decorated in light woods and warm draperies, the rooms look more like hotel suites than medical facilities.
"They didn't have anything like this when I had my kids," said Del. Gail H. Bates, who has two sons, ages 27 and 29, and was touring the facility. "Back then, they didn't try to make you feel at home."
The rooms have framed prints on the walls, concealing medical equipment behind them, sleeper chairs for dads, lots of closet space and a cappuccino maker down the hall.
The unit also has improved technology.
Security doors and cameras keep the area safe, and a new networked monitoring system allows hospital staff members to keep tabs on fetal heart rates and contractions from anywhere in the unit.
The pneumatic tube system is Hogan's favorite. Instead of running specimens to the lab, technicians can drop them in a tube delivery system, similar to that at a bank's drive-up window.
The neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, is more than three times the size of the old one, keeping the babies from being "squashed together," said Tuvia Blechman, the department's clinical director and a member of the design team for both additions.
It has high-tech touch screens on the computer monitors. In the old NICU, one computer was shared by the six nurses, three doctors, a pharmacist, a secretary and a social worker.
Blechman said studies show that babies develop better in a low-light, quiet environment, so he and his team designed the NICU with subtle lighting and gave nurses vibrating phones and headsets to communicate quietly with one another.
Nursing chairs encourage beneficial skin-to-skin bonding, and can be blocked off with a curtain for privacy. Before, mothers had to pull up a screen, and Blechman said the screens did little to cover modest moms.
The hospital also uses new warming beds, called Giraffes, that double as incubators for preemies.
"I really think this is a prototype of how all NICUs in the country should be built," Blechman said. "It optimizes the neurodevelopment of our babies."
The hospital's parent company agrees.
"This represents among the finest facilities in the state," said Ron Peterson, Johns Hopkins Health System president. "It clearly surpass what we have at Johns Hopkins Hospital."