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Hennepin Healthcare's newborn intensive care unit turns 50

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The first unit at the Hennepin Healthcare NICU was called A5.
The first unit at the Hennepin Healthcare NICU was called A5 short for Annex 5.
Courtesy of Hennepin Healthcare

When it opened in 1968, the intensive care unit in downtown Minneapolis for newborns used tubes to feed babies in incubators. Tiny babies born very early rarely survived, let alone thrived.

Hennepin Healthcare celebrates 50 years of its neonatal intensive care unit Saturday, and welcomes patients and their families as well as the staff who cared for them. The unit treats babies born too early and those with conditions that require extra care.  

NICU medical director Dr. Connie Adkisson said new approaches and technology have allowed them to do more to help tiny premature babies. 

  "One thing still the same as it was in 1968 [is] nutrition is the most important thing, when it comes to the newborn ICU," Adkisson said. "I mean a lot of parents think oh, they see the medicines and the machines. But it's really about nutrition, the most important thing of all."

At Annex 5, the area is crowded.
At Annex 5, the area was crowded, with supplies kept on tables and not well organized, the room had no oxygen or air lines so they needed to keep big tanks of oxygen and air.
Courtesy of Hennepin Healthcare

But unlike 50 years ago, Hennepin Healthcare's NICU staff see high numbers of babies born with exposure to opioids and in withdrawal. Adkisson said the hospital started seeing more of these patients in 2013. Hennepin Healthcare is participating in a study of gut bacteria from the opioid-exposed babies and those born healthy and full term to see if there are any differences. 

Adkisson said Hennepin Healthcare, also known as HCMC, has seen many advances over the years. She says the medical staff has changed the way they used to do things, too.

  "We're starting to use less antibiotics or giving very careful consideration to the use of antibiotics," she said. "I would say it was a little bit, sort of second nature that most preterm babies were treated with some antibiotics, but maybe not all need it."

Among the advances, the hospital helps babies that have been deprived of oxygen by giving them a treatment, therapeutic hypothermia, which cools their bodies for three days and can help limit the damage to their brains. 

The Hennepin Healthcare NICU event is from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday.