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Transporting the tiniest: St. Charles Foundation buys new isolette for NICU

Almost once a week, a premature baby needs to be transported by helicopter from a hospital in Central or Eastern Oregon to the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Charles Bend.

To make the trip, babies are placed in a special incubator known as an isolette and attended to by a team of trained NICU transport caregivers. The job of the caregivers is to keep the infant stable until they can reach the NICU for specialized care – something that requires a combination of skill and the latest technology.

“Our isolette has been in service for many years,” said Wendy Miller, a NICU nurse and member of the transport team. “It’s at the end of its life.”

Although the St. Charles Biomedical Services team has worked diligently and creatively to keep the isolette in operation, Dr. Robert Pfister, medical director of the St. Charles NICU, said it is no longer possible to repair. Knowing the situation, St. Charles Foundation stepped in and offered to pay the $175,000 to purchase a new isolette.

“It’s like Christmas morning,” Miller said of the gift. “It’s not just a big deal for us, it’s for everybody in the region that we serve. You need high-tech, reliable equipment. Some of these babies need a lot of support.”

Like most isolettes, the new equipment gives caregivers the ability to carefully control the humidity and temperature for premature infants as well as protect them from vibrations and noises caused by the helicopter.

The new isolette, however, also has a novel cooling function that can help prevent brain damage among infants affected by perinatal asphyxial injury. In addition, this isolette has a high frequency jet ventilator that is both very powerful and gentle to developing fragile lungs. Through the ventilator, caregivers can deliver a gas called nitric oxide to babies. This is a life-saving treatment that helps the lungs of critically ill babies make the transition from being inside the womb to living outside, Pfister explained. With this ventilator, infants can begin to receive these treatments in the field prior to their arrival at the NICU improving their long-term outcomes.

“This isolette will allow us to keep infants in optimal condition. It will allow us to manage critically ill infants during transport in much the same way we will in the NICU,” Pfister said. “The entire NICU team is so grateful to the Foundation. The community will benefit hugely from this.”

When they heard of the need for a new isolette, Lisa Dobey, executive director of St. Charles Foundation, said the decision to fund the new equipment was simple.

“We didn’t specifically fund raise for this equipment, but when donors contribute to the Foundation for the highest need, it’s an amazing resource and a way we can respond in real time to needs within the health system as they arise,” Dobey said. “The generous support of our community makes that possible. Your donations go directly to help patients – like these tiny babies – throughout our region.”

For more information or to donate, please contact St. Charles Foundation at 541-706-6996 or