Two of Ascension's first patients return to celebrate anniversary of Walton County's first NICU

Northwest Florida Daily News/USA TODAY NETWORK

MIRAMAR BEACH — Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast is celebrating the second “birthday” of Walton County’s first neonatal intensive care unit.

This unit has cared for more than 350 premature and critically ill babies since it opened two years ago. The first patient requiring NICU care was born at the hospital on March 3, 2020.

The 10-bed, Level II unit cares for infants born prematurely, up to two months early, who weigh more than 3.3 pounds. The comprehensive group of caregivers includes board-certified neonatologists (pediatricians with specialized training in the care of critically-ill infants), neonatal nurses, immunologists and nutritionists along with a team of specialized nurses, support staff and volunteers.

Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast celebrated the second anniversary of the opening of its NICU on March 3 by bringing back two of its first patients, twins McKinley and Emerson, for the celebration.

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“Being Walton County’s only NICU, growth has continued steadily over the past two years,” said Henry Stovall, regional president of Ascension Sacred Heart. “The NICU had seen an 80% increase in admissions in the last six months over the same time frame last year.”

The NICU is named in recognition of the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation, which gave more than $2 million to fund its construction.

Twins McKinley and Emerson were born shortly after Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast's NICU opened in March 2020 and were two of the first patients. They returned to the NICU to celebrate its second birthday.

"It is an honor, privilege and blessing to be part of this healing ministry, caring for God’s most precious gifts,” said Trisha Kimball, a registered nurse at Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast NICU.

Pediatric services at Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast are backed by The Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Ascension Sacred Heart in Pensacola, Northwest Florida’s only children’s hospital. The Children’s Hospital provides a Level III NICU for the most critically ill and premature newborns.

Should a baby need surgery or have needs beyond what can be managed at the Emerald Coast’s Level II NICU, a mobile neonatal critical care transport ambulance stationed in Miramar Beach provides rapid transfer to Children’s Hospital.

Emerson, who was born shortly after Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast's NICU opened and was one of its first patients along with his twin sister McKinley, received gifts when he returned to the NICU to celebrate its two-year anniversary.

The hospital has delivered more than 780 babies in the last six-months — with August and September being record-breaking months — and a total of 1,472 babies in the last year.

The Family Birth Place delivers experienced, personalized maternity care including caring for women with high-risk pregnancies and their babies. Expecting moms have a variety of natural techniques and medication options available to help them with their childbirth experience.

Twins McKinley and Emerson celebrate the second anniversary of Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast's NICU unit with one of the nurses who cared for them when they were among its first patients.

Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast is the only hospital in the area to hold the “Baby-Friendly” designation from the World Health Organization and UNICEF, recognizing its commitment to the highest level of breastfeeding support and education.

“When hospital leaders planned the opening of the NICU, we had no idea it would be opening during a pandemic,” said Henry Stovall, regional president of Ascension Sacred Heart. “Now more than ever, keeping families close to home for care is so important, and that is why we continue to expand our services for families.”

Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast also offers a pediatric emergency room in cooperation with the Studer Family Children’s Hospital. The emergency department opened in December 2020 and includes four treatment rooms, one triage room and three observation rooms, plus advanced equipment specially designed for diagnosing and treating medical emergencies in kids.