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Every year almost 10 percent of babies in the United States are born prematurely. These tiniest of patients must be cared for in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) where they receive care that helps them survive, grow and develop.

The challenges, however, are not over when premature babies leave the NICU. Their lungs and digestive systems are still fragile and developing. They are especially susceptible to life-threatening respiratory infections. Parents frequently bring home a host of monitors, medications, oxygen tanks and more to help their little ones grow, develop and stay healthy.

“These babies are still very vulnerable. They need special care after birth and are at risk for ongoing medical problems,” said Pamela Zeitlin, MD, PhD, chair of Pediatrics at National Jewish Health for Kids. “We often have to help them learn to swallow and breathe safely.” To support the special needs of these babies after they leave the hospital, Dr. Zeitlin and her team have developed a new post-NICU clinic. Over the past year, pediatric pulmonologists Jane Gross, MD, and Divya Chhabra, MD, have joined the program, and plans are to add a pediatric gastroenterologist and an ear, nose and throat surgeon to address the interrelated respiratory and digestive challenges faced by these babies.

Leylany Mendoza, 2, is one of the babies whose life is being positively affected during her crucial post-NICU years.

During Leylany’s first winter, Pamela Zeitlin, MD, PhD, helped her survive three life-threatening respiratory infections. Dr. Zeitlin coordinated care by gastrointestinal and ear, nose and throat specialists as well as surgical interventions. She detected chronic respiratory failure and prescribed a CPAP mask to help Leylany breathe until her lungs and airways could develop further. The program helps parents and their little ones through this critical development period, guiding them and spending the time needed to be successful.

“I am extremely grateful for Dr. Zeitlin’s support and care for Leylany,” said Jamber Mendoza, Leylany’s mother. “We’re getting more and more hopeful about Leylany’s future.”

“We are significantly increasing the intensity of our services for these premature babies,” said Dr. Zeitlin. “By following these children closely, we can identify issues early and give them the best opportunity to thrive.”