Inside the NICU: Angel Eye cameras keep families connected to their NICU babies

A small camera is making a big difference to parents of preemies.  One of the hardest parts of having a child in the NICU is trying to balance being with your child with everything else.  NICU parents frequently have to return to work or risk losing their jobs, or they have another child at home. So doctors at UAMS created a way for families to keep their babies with them.

Every morning, Kylee Oates wakes up with the same thought.  "I need to see that she's still here," Oates said.  She makes the 30-minute drive from Conway to UAMS in Little Rock to see her daughter, Maylee.  Maylee was born at UAMS in November at only 24 weeks.  "I mean it's unbelievably scary," Oates said. "You can't imagine it."

"When you have a baby that is making it minute by minute and then day by day, you know your mind is just there," explained Rachael Swaty, another NICU mom.

Rachael and Christopher Swaty's daughter, Jane, was born at 27 weeks at Baptist Medical Center.

"You're up here and especially the early days all you can do is sit and stare," Christopher Swaty said. "Try to watch the monitor, see if it was going to beep, see if something was going to happen."

Many NICU parents have to wait days or weeks to even hold their child. It's impossible to describe the feeling of so desperately wanting to do something, yet not being able to do anything at all.

With another daughter to care for, Rachael and Christopher had to go home.

But Kylee lived in the NICU with Maylee for nearly a month. The doctors watched her health and mental well-being deteriorate.

"That was really hard, especially on Kylee because I mean she wanted to do something but there was nothing we could do, nothing," recalled Kylee's husband, Jacob.

Their doctor finally told her to go home.

"It's a mix of emotions," Kylee said. "I can't leave her, I don't want to leave my child. But then it's also, there's a relief there, in him saying, 'You need to go,' in someone telling me I needed to leave and it's okay, that it was okay for me to leave."

But just after Christmas, Maylee got a late gift: a camera.

"If a picture's worth a thousand words then a video is worth 100,000 words," said Dr. Curtis Lowery, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at UAMS.

In 2006, he had an idea.

"The babies are often very, very sick, and they have to stay here for a long time, sometimes six months, and the parents, mothers, have to go back home," Dr. Lowery said. "So we came up with the idea that if we could put a camera on the bed, they could watch their child from home or bedroom or work."

A simple idea, but complicated to implement.

Working with UAMS BioVentures, Dr. Lowery and other doctors and nurses created a prototype, made adjustments, and eventually the Angel Eye Camera System was born.

They are now in around 80 hospitals around the country.

"We probably would have driven ourselves crazy without the cameras, because at any moment, we could check and see her and know everything was fine," Swaty said.  When your baby is struggling for every breath, you don't take 'fine' for granted.  "Sometimes I didn't want to call, sometimes I wasn't ready for the next medical information and I needed my husband's hand for that," Swaty said. "It was just a way to check on her without getting into all the fears, and test results, and the stress."  They also used the Angel Eye Camera to help Jane's big sister get to know her.  "We would wake up in the morning and we'd all get in bed with our cell phone and we would watch Jane together," Swaty said.

And the Oates did the same with Maylee's big brother.  "We watched a movie with Maylee, we ate supper with Maylee, she was on the iPad the whole time," Jacob said.

The Swaty's camera has been passed on to a new family. Jane got to go home after 95 days in the NICU.

Maylee is still there. So far, it's been 112 days.

"The end story is going to be worth it. When she turns one year old, we'll be at home," Jacob said.

It's hard for them to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  But thanks to a little camera, they can at least see Maylee.  UAMS now has an Angel Eye camera on every bed in the NICU.  And at Baptist Medical Center, 32 of the beds have cameras. They are working to secure funding to put them on every bed.