Two USF alumni donated $6 million to USF Health to fund research and the construction of a new facility for newborns at Tampa General Hospital.
The gift’s total value should more than double if a $5 million state match is approved. USF also plans to add another $3 million to support the initiative.
After Pam and Leslie Muma met and married while studying at USF nearly 30 years ago, Pam delivered a child at St. Joseph’s Hospital two months prematurely due to medical complications. The girl died four days after she was transferred to TGH, according to Associate Vice President for USF Health Michael Hoad.
“We’re doing this for two reasons,” Pam said in a USF Health press release. “First, we want to help any family who experiences a situation similar to ours with a newborn in critical need for special care. And second, we believe research can help create and identify the best treatments for those smallest, sickest children.”
The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) will be renamed the Jennifer Leigh Muma Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at TGH in remembrance of the couple’s infant daughter who died soon after birth. Research laboratories at USF will also be named after Lisa Muma Weitz, another daughter who lives in South Carolina.
The Mumas’ endowment is part of a 30-year partnership between USF and TGH, and as one of the largest gifts in the state to support neonatal research, it will focus on “neonatal emergencies due to crisis or inherited disease,” developmental genetics and “brain development and injury,” according to the press release.
Dr. Terri Ashmeade, medical director of TGH’s NICU, said students getting their medical education at USF would benefit after the money is used to attract “top-notch” researchers.
“(The students) are going to be training under the best neonatal researchers we have,” Ashmeade said. “They’re going to be able to do research and bring that, then go throughout the country and spread the knowledge they’ve learned.”
Neonatology is the study and treatment of newborns and the diseases that affect them.
As chief of the Division of Neonatology at USF, Ashmeade also works closely with about 10 USF medical students, residents and fellows training at TGH.
She said it’s her job to take care of the dozens of infants in the NICU, most of whom are born prematurely and fight medical problems.
“Premature babies generally have underdeveloped lungs, so they have difficulty with breathing,” Ashmeade said. “Often that’s the main hurdle we have to get over, because if you can’t breathe, you can’t get oxygen and blood to other organs.
“When they’re in the womb, they’re protected from infection, protected from sound, protected from light. They’re supported by the placenta, so there’s no stress that affects them. Once (they’re) exposed prematurely, all of these are put at risk.”
Because of the relationship between the hospital and USF, Ashmeade said students would also get to observe effects the new environment will have on babies’ health.
Part of the funds from the endowment will be used to redesign and expand the hospital’s 42-bed open room NICU into a quieter, less crowded set-up including 55 to 60 patient beds spaced and partitioned for more privacy.
Dr. Robert Nelson is chairman of pediatrics for USF’s College of Medicine. He said while the contribution has been in the works for the past couple of months, plans to update the more than 20-year-old facility have been discussed for more than a year.
“This will allow us to do several things we’ve been hoping to do,” Nelson said. “(To) create a space where the family can privately spend time with the child and every patient has a closed-off space that will reduce noise, unnecessary light and stimuli like that.”
The NICU’s nurse manager, Pam Sanders, said she has been anticipating the new unit since she arrived at TGH seven years ago.
According to Sanders, the environment is too open and crowded, limiting parents’ bonding opportunities with their babies.
“Right now, (it’s) one big room with three rows,” Sanders said. “The parent in bed one can look over and see the baby in bed two.
“There’s not individual lighting for each baby’s bed space. If you want to turn the lights on to look at one baby, (either) all the lights are on or all the lights are off.”
Sanders said because most of the NICU babies are born prematurely, they are more sensitive than those born at full term to the transition from “a nice, cozy, warm environment” into a world of bright lights where “people are poking them with needles.”
“My goal is to simulate the womb and not disturb them anymore than you have to (in order to) stay alive,” she said.
Sanders said she and her colleagues have visited other NICUs around the country that have been redesigned or built in the past year to help redesign Tampa’s. Plans include moving half of the current NICU into the area TGH uses to serve mothers giving birth until construction of the new Labor Delivery section at the Bayshore Pavilion tower is completed around September. Sanders said actual construction on the new NICU is set to start soon after the tower’s scheduled completion in late 2009 and early 2010.
What to research?
According to Sanders, premature births have increased by 12 percent in the past year.
The money from Muma’s gift will not only help build a place where medical professionals can care for those sick newborns, but also help update USF research facilities and attract researchers to develop treatments in the lab.
Nelson said one topic he would like to see included in the research is related to the genome project and how genes affect premature babies and their susceptibility to disease.
He gave the example of an issue “that’s bothered us over the past 30 years in the field:” Two babies born early are nearly identical in physical makeup and background, yet one gets sick and the other doesn’t.
“Part of the answer may be that one baby is missing some piece of genetic information that predisposes them to (those problems),” Nelson said.
Nelson said newborn specialists also want to expand upon the genome project to further understand the pharmacogenetics of infants or how their bodies process drugs differently based on their genetic make-ups.
“Each of us probably metabolize drugs we take differently,” he said. “One of the hottest areas is to further use that data to identify which child the drug will work on and which child it won’t work on.”