NM Newborn Transport Program at UNM
Paramedic Daniel Mulligan and neonatal nurse practioner Brenda Weeks prepare to load neonatal medical equpment onto a medical transport plane at Seven Bar Aviation in Albuquerque, N.M.
Credit: John Arnold

A unique University of New Mexico medical flight care program that has been a lifeline for thousands of sick newborns across the state is marking its 40th anniversary.

Since 1975, the New Mexico Newborn Transport Program, part of the UNM School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, has transported more than 16,000 sick, injured or medically unstable newborns from all over New Mexico and surrounding states. Those who run the program say it has played an important role in significantly reducing New Mexico's infant mortality rate over the past four decades.

“Many of these babies would have died or had really severe outcomes,” said Janell Fuller, MD, UNM neonatology chief and medical director of the transport program. “If you don’t have a specialized team to take care of them, morbidity and mortality goes up.”

In 1974, the infant mortality rate was 18.3 of 1000 live births – well above the national average, according to Claudia Griffith, a neonatal nurse practioner and co-coordinator of the New Mexico Newborn Transport Team. "In fact," she said, "it rivaled that of some Third-World countries."

By 1980, the state's infant mortality rate decreased to 11 out of 1000 live births and was under the national average of 12.5. In 2013, New Mexico's infant mortality rate was 5.48 per 1000 live births and remains below the national average of 5.96, according to Griffith.

She is a member of the specialized teams that fan out across the state in a leased King Air 90 twin-engine, medically equipped airplane to stabilize and transport the kinds of patients typically found in UNM Hospital’s state-of-the-art neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU. In fact, about a quarter of babies admitted to UNM's NICU are brought there by the transport program. These young patients are often severely premature babies or those with birth defects or low birth weight who fall ill in some of New Mexico’s most rural communities, which lack a NICU or neonatal specialists.

“We bring the NICU to outlying hospitals and communities, and we provide very specialized care,” Fuller said. “Our goal is not to scoop and run, but to stabilize the baby.”

UNM’s newborn transport teams do this with a portable incubator containing oxygen and compressed air tanks, ventilator, cardiorespiratory monitor and thermal controls. When the program gets a call for transport, the on-call team quickly prepares and loads the 260-pound unit into a van at UNM Hospital and heads to the Albuquerque Sunport, where their pilot and plane – leased from Seven Bar Aviation – await. 

“We have 30 minutes to get to the airport,” nurse practioner Brenda Weeks said. “From there we can go just about anywhere. Sometimes it’s an ER, or a firehouse. Sometimes an ambulance is waiting at a rural airport. We could be picking up a newborn or a baby who is a few weeks old.”

Although the teams occasionally fly to surrounding states, “the vast majority are in New Mexico,” added paramedic and transport tech Daniel Mulligan. Most patients are brought to UNM Children’s Hospital, he said, though the team also transports newborns to other hospitals in Albuquerque, Denver, Phoenix and other regional cities. The UNM neonatal teams make about 25 flights a month.

The program is unique in New Mexico medical flight care by being the only one to send a mid-level provider, either a neonatal nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant, on every call, according to paramedic Paul Serino, another program transport tech. The other half of the two-person team is a specially trained registered nurse, paramedic or respiratory therapist.

”But the real story,” Serino said, “is about those we work for – the newborns that we treat and care for and the anxious parents who trust this special team with the lives of their most precious loved ones, at the most critical time in their short lives.”