Crouse Health has announced plans for a $31 million expansion and renovation for its Regional Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). The new plan will boost the unit, located on the ninth floor of Crouse Hospital’s Irving Unit, from 15,000 to 24,000 square feet.

Crouse Health leaders say the goal is to secure all funding by mid-2020.

The NICU is designated by the New York State Department of Health as the only hospital in Central New York to serve as the area’s Regional Perinatal Center.

Known for its premier infant care — Crouse Health Foundation announces a $500,000 gift dedicated to the project from Neonatal Associates of Central New York, whose eight physicians care for 1,000 premature and critically ill infants from a 14-county region in Northern and Central New York each year.

Among the babies cared for so far this year is four-and-a-half-month-old Tobin Mack.

“He was 645 grams which is roughly one pound, six ounces and 13 inches long,” said Katie Mack, Tobin’s mother.

Born four months premature, Tobin was fragile. NICU doctors told Katie her son’s lungs were one of the biggest concerns. 

Katie would wait weeks to hold her son for the first time, which happened to land on Mother’s Day.

“I’ll never forget the day that you know I could finally put hands on him and you know, [the nurse] taught me…I was like, ‘How do I do it?’ She’s like, ‘Firm, but you know, not too gentle.’ So, I tested it. Tried it on her hand because I didn’t want to hurt him because he was just so little,” Katie shared. “They taught me how to be a mom to this little guy.”

While Crouse’s NICU is the highest level — and largest — in the region with 57 bassinets, more space is required to provide the best care possible to its tiniest patients, affectionately known as “Crouse Little Fighters.”

New technology is also vital to its continued success, according to NICU Nurse Manager Erin Coleman.

“Really, we just need to spread our footprint as far as we can go and be able to provide that holistic care that’s going to be developmentally and medically appropriate for the infants that are here,” Coleman explained.

The new space will also include new NICU requirements. Coleman says each infant patient area will require exposure to natural light. Coleman says the expansion will also allow for the incorporation of aromatherapy, art and music therapy, and more space for family-centered care which may also include pet therapy to comfort parents.

Most of all, the larger unit will allow for doctors and nurses to care for more babies like Tobin Mack.

“We were there 134 days and they saved my son. They saved him, and I’m just so incredibly grateful for all the things they did for me, for him,” said Katie Mack. “I’m just thankful.”

Katie says even the most chaotic and stressful moments in the NICU are made to feel calm thanks to the Crouse NICU doctors, nurses and support staff.

Spending several months in the unit with Tobin — the staff quickly felt like family. Katie and Tobin have been home for a week, but the connection to Crouse will last a lifetime.

“I’ve been able to send them videos and pictures of what he’s doing and keeping them in the loop,’ Katie shared. “I really look forward to going back and showing them all his progress and how well he’s doing.”

Inspired by the care she witnessed first-hand, Katie says she plans to go change careers and become a NICU nurse herself.

The Crouse Health Foundation plans to raise $10 million through private gifts to the CrouseCares Comprehensive campaign to support the NICU expansion and renovation project.

The neonatologists providing the $500,000 gift to kick off the project include Steven Gross, MD, medical director of Newborn Medicine and the Regional NICU; Rebecca Barnett, DO; Ellen Bifano, MD; Boura’a Bou Aram, MD; Bonnie Marr, MD; Swati Murthy, MD; Melissa Nelson, MD; and Beverly Roy, MD.

The major announcement comes during the middle of NICU Awareness Month.