Pediatric Emergency Care
UNM Children's Hospital includes the only pediatric emergency department in New Mexico.
Credit: Rebecca Gustaf

The Pediatric Emergency Department at UNM Children’s Hospital has come a long way over the past 20 years. It was effectively a mobile unit in 1994. A small medical team would treat children in the hospital’s pediatric outpatient clinic during business hours, and then for after-hours emergencies the operation would move to a clinical area adjacent to the adult emergency room. 

"We would wheel in our pediatric equipment in the evenings and wheel it back out in the morning,” Dr. Robert Sapien recalled during a recent celebration marking the unit’s 20th year. Sapien, chief of the University of New Mexico's Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, spearheaded the effort to create a dedicated emergency room for children.

“It truly takes a village to create and manage this kind of operation at such a high level,” he said. “The staff has been remarkable over the past two decades, tirelessly moving essential equipment in and out, pursuing specialty pediatric training and certification, raising personal and professional standards and, as the only pediatric emergency department in the state, taking on an enormous caseload of very complex patients.”

When UNM Hospitals opened the Barbara and Bill Richardson Pavilion in 2007, the Pediatric Emergency Department found a dedicated, permanent home. The 12-bed unit, adjacent to the Pavilion's adult emergency department, provides Level I trauma care, including surgical, orthopedic, neurological, pulmonary, burn, abuse and other emergency care for patients up to the age of 19. The medical staff’s training and the department’s equipment are focused on physical, developmental and psychological needs of young patients. Included in the unit are three additional pediatric observation beds and a secure “kids only” waiting room loaded with activities.

But as important as the specialized equipment and facilities are, it takes a dedicated staff – and a certain personality – to handle the unique demands of a pediatric emergency room, according to Sheena Ferguson, chief nursing officer at UNM Hospital. 

“Anyone who works in pediatric medicine has a rare blend of empathy, sympathy, patience, dedication, flexibility, composure – it’s almost indefinable,” she said. “Imagine having a flow of patients who can’t tell you what’s wrong, where it hurts or how it started. Then add in the justifiably supercharged emotions of parents and you’ve just gone from zero to 60 miles-per-hour in seconds.”

In its first year of operation, UNM Hospitals’ pediatric emergency room saw nearly 6,000 patients. Last year, the unit cared for 21,000 patients from all 33 New Mexico counties, plus children from Texas, Arizona and Colorado. In 1994, the staff included one physician and a few other staff members. The department today includes nine pediatric emergency medicine specialists, along with several general emergency medicine physicians dedicated to the care of children. Five physician fellows and nearly 50 other staff members also work in the department, which sees more than 400 patients a week.

Meanwhile, UNM’s Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine is working to expand its reach far beyond its Albuquerque facility. UNM’s pediatric emergency doctors will be treating sick children across the state, thanks to a new program that allows them to consult with patients via video conferencing technology.

The telemedicine initiative is a component of "Child Ready," a program supported by a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration that aims to address gaps in pediatric emergency care across New Mexico, especially in rural parts of the state.