Hand to Hold and Dell Children’s Medical Center have announced that they are partnering to provide in-hospital support for neonatal intensive care unit families in Austin. The two organizations made the announcement at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Dec. 6 after a successful yearlong pilot program, with NICU families and staff finding tremendous benefits from the support provided.

“A critical part of the outcome for our babies is family well-being. When we discharge a baby after having walked them through, at times, months and even sometimes over a year of care in an intensive care unit, Hand to Hold is there to be part of their support in the hospital and support once they go home,” said Neonatologist John Loyd, chief of neonatal care at Dell Children’s Medical Center, outside the NICU at Dell Children’s Medical Center, 4900 Mueller Blvd., Austin.

Hand to Hold, a national organization providing support to NICU families at Ascension Seton, has two dedicated extended staff at the neonatal intensive care unit at Dell Children's Medical Center. They work with the families of the babies with emotional, physical and social needs. Hand to Hold provides this support in English and Spanish at no cost to the families.

These staff members are required to be NICU graduate parents who have lived a personal experience, understand the challenges and are mental health peer specialists certified in the state of Texas. They have also received training around bereavement support, leading support groups and trauma-informed care, said Kelli Kelley, founder and executive director of Hand to Hold. Kelley is also a NICU graduate parent.

The neonatal intensive care unit at Dell Children’s Medical Center, operated by Ascension in Texas, has 32 beds that are almost full all the time, and the unit is expecting to receive 24 more beds in about 10 months, said Dr. Molly M. Pont, neonatal-perinatal medicine physician at Dell Children's Medical Center and Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin.

“We have medically fragile children and are under tremendous stress, which is why we have some that have very long, extended stays,” Pont said.

Pont, who is also a NICU graduate parent, said not everyone understands how to support NICU families, and Hand to Hold would provide the support.

“Dell Children's was the only NICU in Austin that [Hand to Hold] was not a part oft until last year,” Kelley said.

Hand to Hold is already in operation at the NICU at Dell Children's Medical Center. The certified staff reaches out to parents and gives them the support right from the beginning of their arrival, said Christine Tester, Hand to Hold family support specialist.

“We've talked several times,” said Dakota, a parent whose newborn was transferred from another hospital on Nov. 30 while his wife remained there for another 36 hours, he said. “They're very quick to offer any kind of services or anything, and to my wife as well.