Hardin Memorial Hospital is raising its game for sick newborns, adding two pieces of technology to its neonatal unit that expanded just last year.

Last August, Hardin Memorial shored up $500,000 to upgrade its facilities. The latest round of grant funding will pay for a vein viewer — a portable, handheld device that illuminates the tiny veins of newborns — and a cardiorespiratory monitor, a cockpit-like display system that will show each newborn on a central screen.

Hardin Memorial Health Neonatologist Dr. Bridget Hempel monitors a newborn in the Giraffe Omnibed at the Hardin Memorial Health Level II Neonatal Intensive Care UnitCourtesy Hardin Memorial Health

Hardin Memorial Health Neonatologist Dr. Bridget Hempel monitors a newborn in the Giraffe Omnibed at the Hardin Memorial Health Level II Neonatal Intensive Care Unit

Nurses currently make rounds between babies in different rooms. Bedside monitors show things like heart and respiratory rates, and oxygen levels. Kara Smith, director of inpatient surgical division at Hardin Memorial, says the difference in a central monitor could mean a baby with a decreasing oxygen rate is tended to even before an alarm goes off.

“If you’re coming through the station you might see on the monitor something doesn’t look right with a baby, even before the alarm system sounds,” Smith says.

The value to having a vein viewer, Smith says, is that nurses will spend less time searching for their patients tiny veins.

“You need access to give antibiotics, fluids, and not having an access could compromise the care of the baby,” Smith says.

There are 16 hospitals in Kentucky that have level 2 units and can provide advanced technology for babies, including ventilators. Hardin Memorial is the only level two neonatal intensive care unit in central Kentucky, which covers 10 counties including Breckinridge, Grayson and Marion. Most hospitals that deliver babies can care for the basic health needs of newborns. A hospital must upgrade to become a level 2, adding things like a 24/7 neonatologist and more advanced equipment.

Neonatal Units in KYAlexandra Kanik |

(Click photo to enlarge)

Smith says the need for the level 2 unit arose with an increase in babies born at Hardin — 1,622 in 2016 — and the pressure parents faced when their infants had to be shipped to hospitals in Louisville, almost an hour from Hardin.

Since the level 2 NICU opened, 140 babies have been born, 82 of those since January.

Scott Matthews, director of maternal child health for Midwest region of March of Dimes, says that having a higher level NICU in a local community can make a huge difference for families.

“You can imagine how upsetting it can be to a family to have a baby who’s born early and then in addition having them transferred outside the community,” Smith says.

He says some things that are beneficial to newborns — like the ability to breastfeed and bond with family —  are much harder if babies are farther away.

“If technology can help keep that baby in the community where the family lives, that can be a much better circumstance,” he says.

There are also seven hospitals with level 3 and 4 neonatal units in Kentucky. But they are concentrated in four counties around Louisville and Lexington. These units can perform surgery, perform transplants and do other advanced procedures on newborns.

The March of Dimes gives out yearly ratings on premature birth rates, a big factor in newborns ending up in NICUs. In 2015, Kentucky got a D rating with a preterm birth rate of 10.7 percent. The March of Dimes is pushing for an 8 percent rate by 2020.

Mary Beth Camp, March of Dimes’ NICU support program coordinator, says it’s important for rural areas to have higher care facilities nearby because it affects the eventual outcome of the baby. Babies who are born just a few weeks early are three times more likely to die in the first year of life compared to full-term infants, and are also twice as likely to die of SIDS than full-term infants, according to the Kentucky Department of Public Health.

“It’s been proven that the more family is involved while the baby is hospitalized, the shorter the length of stay and the better the [health] outcome,” Camp says.


County Highest neonatal unit available
Barren 2
Bell 1
Boone 3
Boyd 3
Boyle 2
Calloway 1
Clark 1
Clay 1
Daviess 2
Fayette 4
Floyd 1
Franklin 2
Graves 1
Grayson 1
Hardin 1
Harlan 1
Harrison 1
Henderson 2
Hopkins 2
Jefferson 4
Johnson 1
Laurel 1
Lawrence 1
Letcher 1
Madison 1
Marion 1
Mason 1
McCracken 2
Montgomery 1
Nelson 1
Oldham 1
Perry 2
Pike 2
Pulaski 2
Rowan 1
Scott 1
Taylor 1
Warren 2
Whitley 2
Source: Kentucky Office of Health Policy, 2014 Annual Hospital Utilization and Services Report
Map by Alexandra Kanik