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When the flames came racing down Mark West Springs Road, some of the fire’s tiniest potential victims lay unaware, snugly wrapped in soft blankets under the watchful attention of their skilled nurses. They were asleep in the neonatal intensive care unit of Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, next door to the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.

Outside and up the street, as homes of the hospital’s physicians and staff started to burn and embers fell on the roof of the Sutter facility, the babies were carefully gathered, moved into ambulances and driven to safety.

Sutter’s Level III neonatal intensive care unit provides care to infants from as far away at Marin, Eureka and Ukiah who are born prematurely, as young as 26 weeks, so small they can be cupped in two hands, or newborns struggling with life-threatening conditions. Level III is the most critical stage of neonatal medical care a hospital can provide, and nonprofit Sutter has operated this life-saving facility in Santa Rosa for more than a quarter-century.

In that time, medical care for newborns has come a long way, explained Shaun Ralston, the energetic regional manager of Sutter Health.

The Sutter NICU suffered no damage from the Tubbs fire and is now back to full operation. Inside, the care unit is soft and dimly lit, with black widescreen monitors showing moving tracks for each baby’s vital signs at a central nurse’s station. An occasional newborn’s soft cry can be heard from the surrounding rooms.

In the center of each room is a white, wheeled, all-in-one infant incubator and care-station, which is commonly known as a giraffe. The self-contained system provides precise warmth and humidity control, an X-ray tray, ventilation and even a built-in scale. Inside, the tiny swaddled infants wear soft knit caps, some asleep with their nurses and mothers nearby.

One key finding of modern neonatal research is the importance of keeping mother and child close and in touch during the baby’s time in hospital.

Studies show that a hospitalized newborn’s health, development and future well-being are all strongly affected by separation, particularly if they’re premature. Doctors now consider parents’ presence vitally important to infant recovery, and with this in mind, the NICU is clearly designed to accommodate parents.

But having parents close isn’t always that simple. The cost of staying near the hospital for days and weeks can be crushing or impossible for families from out of town, and a true financial burden at a particularly stressful time, said Penny Cleary, director of development for Sutter North Bay.

In the past, Sutter was able to provide these families of NICU patients with hotel vouchers and meal assistance, thanks to community donations and in particular, the fundraising generosity of Sonoma County’s World Croquet Championship Children’s Foundation, led by local winery owner and entrepreneur Brice Cutrer Jones.

But a better and more sustainable solution opened when Sutter relocated from Chanate Road to its present modern facilities. Local benefactors Bill and Elizabeth Shea stepped forward to donate support to construct a four-bedroom home for parents and families of newborn patients who could not otherwise afford to stay with their children. The Shea House was opened within walking distance of the Sutter maternity center.

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Unfortunately, the house, which was occupied the night of the fire, burned to the ground. The family inside escaped after being roused by a hospital security guard and safely evacuated, and they later reunited with their infant.

Sutter has continued to help parents by providing hotel vouchers but, according to Cleary, they’re rapidly exhausting their available funds. Each year, the four furnished rooms in the Shea House served as temporary homes to 50 or more families who stayed from two to 60 days. Providing hotel vouchers and gift cards for meals is considerably more expensive and more difficult for parents who are worried about their infants.

Sutter plans to rebuild the house. But, as a nonprofit medical center, Cleary said, Sutter counts on fundraisers and donors to help meet many costs. That can be an ongoing challenge, but it has a key advantage.

Because they don’t have to be concerned with investor returns, they’re able to devote their full attention to finding talented staff and focusing on patient care.

High-risk newborns continue to arrive at Sutter’s Level III NICU by helicopter and ambulance, and the hospital’s staff, many of whom lost homes in the October fires themselves, continue to serve as the region’s first neonatal responders.

Helping the smallest and most vulnerable patients and their families is something Sutter Health Santa Rosa Regional Hospital is fully equipped and prepared to do.

“Access to excellent medical care truly depends on the community’s support,” Cleary said.

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