Donor Story

A FIGHTING CHANCE

Neo Wellness Fund to Benefit Premature Infants at UNM Children’s Hospital

By Michelle G. McRuiz

Posted July 6, 2017

A newly established fund at the UNM Foundation will improve the odds for UNM Hospital’s tiniest, most fragile patients—not only for thriving, but also for surviving. And the fund’s founder and champion, Robin Ohls, MD, is determined to be a voice for these babies, who cannot speak for themselves.

Ohls is chief of the Division of Neonatology within UNM’s Department of Pediatrics. She has been on its faculty since 1995. Her clinical focus is fetal and neonatal hematology, and her division is comprised of topnotch physicians dedicated to providing the best neonatal care while pursuing research projects that will lead to improvements in the lives of infants.

The UNM Division of Neonatology assembles for a group photo. Back row, L-R: Tara Dupont, Kristi Watterberg, Janell Fuller, Beatrice Stefanescu, Carmen Herrera, Jessie Maxwell and Lu-Ann Papile; front row, L-R: Jean Lowe, Robin Ohls, Catherine Milner and Jennifer Rael. Division neonatologists not pictured are Rebecca Moran and Vlad Ianus. Photo: Annie Chavez

As financial resources become scarce, Ohls is determined to prevent lean financial times from affecting the health of critically ill newborns.

A Natural Source

Ohls established and is the first donor to the Neo Wellness Fund, which will provide, among other things, human-donor milk for premature infants. Human milk is vital, said Ohls. Beatrice Stefanescu, MD, is the division’s director of NICU (Newborn Intensive Care Unit) Quality Improvement (QI), and her QI assessment and findings supported previously reported studies that human milk results in better preemie health. “The fact that we weren’t providing human milk put us behind the curve” of other NICUs, Ohls said. Stefanescu purchased human-donor milk with her own research funds as a means to provide the service.

Human milk is the standard for preterm infant nutrition as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It reduces the likelihood of a devastating disease called necrotizing enterocolitis, in which bacteria invade the wall of an infant’s intestine, severely injuring the tissue and results in intestinal necrosis (death of the intestine), perforation, severe infection, and sometimes death. While rare in full-term infants, necrotizing enterocolitis occurs in up to 10 percent of premature babies.

“Until now we were providing premature formula, or mother’s milk, if the mother could breastfeed,” Ohls said. Donor milk is available, and pasteurized donor milk banks exist across the United States (the nearest one is in Denver). However, human-donor milk is four times as expensive as formula, and the funding simply isn’t available. The knowledge that UNMH is the only hospital in New Mexico that doesn’t provide exclusively human-donor milk to its babies stung. So, Ohls declared, “We’re just going to raise the money and provide the milk ourselves.”

Doing Much with Little

Ohls gave a cash gift to the fund and has pledged to continue donating via payroll deduction. “I will just keep building [the fund],” she said, “and I’ll take any amount of money. We have neonatal needs to spend it on every single week.”

Ohls and her colleagues also intend to use the fund to pay for important research projects and research equipment. “We have internationally renowned researchers here changing the lives of babies,” she said proudly. “We do a whole lot with few resources. Everyone has areas they shine in.”

“We are truly grateful to have talented, compassionate and generous faculty members like Dr. Ohls,” said Executive Vice Dean of the School of Medicine Martha Cole McGrew, MD. “Her commitment—to her work and through her gift—is critical to the success of our programs and patients.”

World’s Greatest Job

Neonatology is a “hard job,” Ohls acknowledged, due not only to the clinical challenges of caring for such vulnerable patients, but also caring for their families as well—answering tough questions, allaying fears, and, at times, giving families bad news. “It’s really rewarding, and stressful, and sometimes sad,” she said. In fact, she was drawn to neonatology because of its challenging nature.

While an undergraduate in human biology at Stanford University, Ohls took a course on ethics in pediatrics. At the end of the semester, the class visited the Stanford NICU. Ohls saw two residents doing a lumbar puncture on a baby. This procedure, also called a spinal tap, is unpleasant for even the most stoic adult. The infant was bright red and screaming. “I started to feel a little woozy and started looking for a place to sit down,” she said, “and I walked right into a wall and fainted. I figured anything that knocks you on your butt like that has got to be the world’s greatest job.”

The Neo Wellness Fund provides a buffer against lean financial times, concluded Ohls, and allows the division to build resources they wish for but don’t often have—as well as giving the neonatology team the ability to do start-up research. “Times are tougher and tougher,” she said. “We want to do the very best we can to have the best outcomes.”

To make a gift to the Neo Wellness Fund, please contact School of Medicine Director of Development Megan Dugan at (505) 313-7621 or Megan.Dugan@unmfund.org. You may also make a gift by visiting here.

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