Premature Infant in the NICU
UC Irvine Medical Center's neonatal intensive care unit treats more premature infants and "micro" preemies than any other hospital in Orange County. Steve Zylius / University Communications

Students organizing the 2011 UCI Care-a-thon recently met the beneficiaries of the dance marathon – premature babies and the doctors, nurses and therapists who tend to them in UC Irvine Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit.

Dr. Cherry Uy, the unit’s medical director, explained that UC Irvine treats more premature babies and “micro” preemies – those weighing less than 2 pounds at birth – than any other hospital in Orange County. Up to 30 infants at a time are cared for in the NICU, which will expand to 45 beds later this year.

“When babies are born prematurely, there are a lot of complications,” Uy told the students, none of whom had ever been in an NICU. Many, for example, are placed on ventilators because their lungs have not fully developed.

Care-a-thon proceeds will help fund a portable ultrasound machine for the NICU, giving medical staff an unobtrusive way to view an infant’s developing lungs, among other things. This support helps extend the reach of UC Irvine’s leading neonatal research and advances in treatment.

The event – organized by the UCI Student Alumni Association – will take place from 6 p.m. to midnight Friday, Feb. 25, at UCI’s Student Center. Dancers each raise a minimum of $25 and commit to staying on their feet for six hours. The marathon will feature games, free food and a photo booth, as well as live bands and a DJ.

Last year, about 300 students, staff and alumni danced at Crawford Hall, collecting almost $15,000 for the NICU. The 2011 goal is $20,000, and participants have raised more than $3,300 so far, with matching funds pledged by UCI trustees.

“Every dollar will go to support the NICU,” says Sylvia Romo, an adviser with the UCI Alumni Association, which is helping coordinate the event – expected to draw about 400 people this year.

The Care-a-thon is part of a larger effort to promote philanthropy within the student community. Called UCImpact, the initiative educates students about charitable opportunities and identifies ways for them to partner with the campus on fundraising priorities.

The UCI Student Alumni Association chose the NICU as beneficiary of the dance marathon because members wanted to focus their philanthropic efforts on giving back to the university. The recent tour of the hospital unit, Romo says, was a great way to remind them of the people their hard work will help.

“At some point, preparing for the event becomes a long to-do list, and sometimes the cause gets lost in the details,” she says. “It was surprising to see how moved the students were and the connections they made.”

Most were a little shy about asking questions, but senior anthropology major Kelsey Skaggs wanted to know why the doctors had chosen to work in the NICU. “I like kids – adults, not so much,” joked Dr. Jack Sills. “The important thing is that most of the babies here will get better.”

He and Uy both emphasized the patients. “A lot of us get into neonatal care after training in pediatrics,” she said. “There’s an excitement to caring for these babies.”

Sills agreed: “Nothing is routine here.”