Wednesday, June 5, 2013 12:00 AM

First flight for Community Regional's NICU transport program

Baby Jennifer came weeks too early, arriving after her laboring mother was transferred from a Delano hospital to Community Regional Medical Center, the Valley’s high-risk birthing center where moms and babies stay together.

After growing and gaining strength in the hospital’s Level III neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), Jennifer became the first passenger on the hospital’s specialized NICU helicopter transport. She was being transferred to a hospital closer to home where her parents were waiting excitedly.

The NICU helicopter transport program debuted April 1 after extensive training and preparation of physicians and staff. Of the 195 NICU ground-transports in 2012, 159 were babies transferred to the hospital for advanced care offered by Community Regional’s Level III NICU. Air travel is often more safe for babies because it provides a smoother ride, especially for infants more than 50 miles away. Community Regional implemented the helicopter program to meet the needs of these babies.

To ensure the safe transport of fragile infants, four neonatologists, 14 nurses and 12 respiratory care practitioners from the NICU became certified for air transport. Abby Van Den Broeke, NNP, Community Regional’s NICU transport co-coordinator, described the training and specialized staff needed for transport.

“Transport team members go through rigorous training both in the classroom and at the bedside. They are experts in procedures and management of the critically ill infant.”
A registered nurse, a respiratory care practitioner, and a neonatologist make up the team NICU air transport team. It is this team, plus the skilled pilot, that adds so much to the security of the helicopter transport program. Neonatologist Stephen Elliott was especially proud that the team’s very first air transport was a repatriation – a baby being transferred to a hospital much closer to the family’s home.

“Repatriation can be extremely important to families who live far away. Many of our families cannot afford travel and accommodation expenses to visit their tiny loved ones in the NICU. We are very committed to repatriation whenever possible, and in many ways, it is the most rewarding type of transport. Now I know how Santa feels!” 

Hank Perry, clinical coordinator of NICU respiratory care and co-coordinator of neonatal transport said: “Despite all of our skills and technology, our focus on family centered care sets us apart.”

Baby Jennifer’s mother, Martina Nuñez, said, “We are so happy that we will be able to have Jennifer closer to home!”  This first transport, a display of the highly-equipped staff and advanced technology that Community Regional can offer, holds promise for a new transport system that is sure to help even more infants in the Valley.

Haley Laningham, communications intern for Community Regional Medical Center reported this story. She can be reached at