UC Davis Children's Hospital Pediatric Intensive Care Unit – delivering expertise, technology, support when it really counts

Photo of Nevaeh Sweeney with her parents and medical team © UC Regents
Four-month-old Nevaeh Sweeney draws loving attention from her parents, Priscilla Archuleta and Michael Sweeney, as well as two members of her care team, pediatric intensive care nurse Shelly Bloom and critical-care physician Melissa Evans. Nevaeh spent five months in the PICU recovering from emergency heart surgery to correct a congenital heart defect.

Nevaeh Sweeney's parents brought their baby daughter from rural Northern California to Sacramento last October to find out why she wasn't gaining weight. They could not have known she would spend five months fighting for her life in the UC Davis Children's Hospital Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU).

"It was shocking," Nevaeh's father, Michael, says of the harrowing experience. "I thought we were going down for a routine thing – and it turned into a one in five chance that she'd live."

Journey of a lifetime

The true journey of a lifetime for Nevaeh began when, after the 500-mile drive from Cedarville in Modoc County and admission to a Sacramento-area community hospital, she went "code-blue" while being readied for the ambulance ride to UC Davis.

The 4-month-old had a seizure and went into respiratory arrest.

"She looked blue and felt cold to the touch," recalls her mother, Priscilla Archuleta. "She was just very helpless and there was nothing we could do."

That's when pediatric intensivist Melissa Evans stepped in, consulting with the community physicians via telephone as they inserted a breathing tube in the tiny infant to stabilize her enough for the ambulance ride to UC Davis.

"Our transport team had a very difficult time since she was never really stable at any point during transport," Evans says. "They did a phenomenal job getting her here alive."

At UC Davis, Evans and a team that included several nurses, a cardiologist and a pediatric heart surgeon immediately placed Nevaeh on extra-corporeal life support (ECLS). The machine oxygenates the blood, doing the work of a damaged heart or lungs.

Photo of Casey Dyke © UC Regents
Four-year-old Casey Dyke recently participated in a benefit for UC Davis Children's Hospital at Blue Oaks School in Roseville where his mother works, proudly showing the scars from his operations. Casey's mom, Gina Dykes, estimates her son spent close to a year's time in the PICU recovering from the multiple procedures. She understands the need for an expanded, updated PICU to replace the unit where she said there was no room for even a chair to sit next to the bedside. "We'd go into Casey's room, kiss him, and go back into the waiting area," Dyke recalls of her vigils with Casey.

"She would have died within a very short period if we had not placed her on ECLS," Evans says. "She was lucky to have been so close to UC Davis at the time her condition worsened."

Tests eventually would show that a piece of tissue had grown into one of the chambers of Nevaeh's tiny heart, obstructing the flow of blood from her lungs. She would spend three months recovering in the PICU from a six-hour-long, life-saving operation by pediatric heart surgeon Gary Raff.

"We had to stay strong and positive," Archuleta says. "I love that PICU – they saved my daughter's life."

Your help is needed

Photo of UC Davis Children's Hospital © UC RegentsSaving the lives of Casey Dyke and Nevaeh Sweeney and hundreds of children like them is only possible with your support.

As the most comprehensive hospital for children in inland Northern California, UC Davis Children's Hospital manages nearly 75,000 visits a year by children from the San Joaquin Valley to the Oregon border. With 120 physicians in 33 pediatric subspecialties, the hospital offers children and families high-level care for virtually every health condition, from trauma to behavioral medicine. It offers extra-corporeal life support for infants and adults – the technology that helped save Nevaeh's life.

Yet a growing pediatric population means even more children will need access to the high-technology care the PICU provides.

Plans are in the works to expand the PICU, increasing its overall size, as well as the size of individual patient rooms. The new facility would increase in size from 12,500 to 25,000 square feet, increasing the bed size from 16 to 24.

Patient room size in the new PICU would grow to 280 square feet to allow patients more privacy and more family-centered care. Mothers and fathers would be able to sleep in their children's rooms.

"Sometimes there's no room in the PICU for even a chair to sit next to the bedside," Dyke recalls of her vigils with Casey. "We'd go into Casey's room, kiss him, and go back into the waiting area."

The passage of Proposition 3 authorized the state to offer $980 million in bonds to fund the construction, expansion, remodeling, renovation, furnishing and equipping of children's hospitals – including UC Davis Children's Hospital, where the funds would be used to pay for the expansion of critical services such as the new pediatric intensive care unit and pediatric cancer services. However, the economic downturn has put the sale of those bonds on hold.

Philanthropic support is needed more than ever to provide the kind of services needed in the Sacramento area and inland Northern California. To learn how you can help, call Health Sciences Development at (916) 734-9400.

The long haul

Roseville kindergarten teacher Gina Dyke shares Archuleta's sentiment.

Heart surgeon Raff has performed four complex surgeries on her son Casey, now 4, who each time was admitted to the PICU afterward. Dyke estimates Casey has spent a year in the PICU recovering from his heart surgeries and several other health problems.

Unlike the Sweeneys, pre-natal testing told Gina Dyke and her husband Michael that Casey would need a series of operations to correct a heart defect. A crucial valve was missing from his heart, inhibiting it from circulating oxygen-rich blood to his body.

But Casey's body required the procedures sooner than expected, creating a series of crises for Casey, his parents, pediatric intensivists like Stephanie Mateev and Robert Pretzlaff and heart surgeon Raff.

The first procedure was performed in January 2005, just days after Casey's birth. The second operation happened right in his room in the PICU while he was recovering from the first procedure. The little boy was connected to so many machines while he healed that there was no room for his parents to sit at his bedside.

"We literally didn't know if he was going to make it, and we were scared to ask," Dyke says. "All you're thinking is 'he has to live.'"

On the mend

Nevaeh Sweeney is almost walking now and, though she needs 13 medications each day, her parents say she is a happy baby girl. They make a monthly six-hour trip from Cedarville to UC Davis for follow-up visits with pediatric cardiologist Michael Choy.

Casey is doing well, too, and though occasional nosebleeds and colds raise concerns for his parents, his energy level has improved enough for Casey to attend his first sports camp this year.

UC Davis Medicine

UC Davis Medicine - cover for Summer 2009 issue. ©2009 UC Regents The summer 2009 issue of UC Davis Medicine explores the many ways that the innovative and compassionate experts at UC Davis are helping children grow up healthy and prepared to take on the challenges of tomorrow.

Click here to read more.

"He's never really been able to do those things before," Dyke says. "It's amazing that a boy born with the odds against him can go on to have such a normal life. I'm extremely grateful for what UC Davis has done for him."

Dyke says Casey recently participated in a benefit for UC Davis Children's Hospital at Blue Oaks School in Roseville where his mother works, proudly showing the scars from his operations to a deeply moved audience.