News 13 Special Report: In-depth look at neonatal care in Horry County

CONWAY, SC (WBTW) – The March of Dimes released its latest report card on premature births and gave Horry County an “F.” It was the only county in South Carolina to receive a failing grade, with a preterm birth rate of 12.3 percent, and is the county with the highest rate of preterm birth in the state.

South Carolina received a “D” on the report with an average preterm birth rate of 11.1 percent.

“What is causing preterm birth that we don’t know? Is it nutrition is it our living conditions?” said March of Dimes Executive Director of Market Development of the Eastern South Carolina Market, Crystal Hummer. “We’re looking at all different areas.”

The report allows staff with March of Dimes to pinpoint some of the county’s main problems.

“One of the priorities that we’re focusing on, and certainly that apply to Horry County, is women of child-bearing age that smoke,” said Hummer.

She said they’re also focusing on racial disparities in the county.

“We know that black women have higher preterm birth rates. Why is that? We know some reasons but there’s a lot of reasons we don’t know so that’s certainly a focus for us,” added Hummer.

According to the report, black women in South Carolina have a preterm birth rate of 14.1 percent.

“That is 47 percent higher than any other race in the state,” added Hummer.

While Horry County has a higher premature birth rate than any other county in South Carolina, it does not have a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

“Unfortunately, you know, our area doesn’t have a NICU,” said Hummer. “That would be wonderful. Babies may have to be transferred out to Charleston or McLeod or another NICU in the state.”

There are five Level III NICU’s in South Carolina. They are at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston, McLeod Regional Medical Center in Florence, Palmetto Richland Memorial Hospital in Columbia, Greenville Hospital in Greenville and Spartanburg Regional Medical Center in Spartanburg.

News13 found out the hospitals in Horry County don’t meet certain standards required of a Level III NICU.

DHEC codes say to be eligible; the hospital must manage an average of 1500 deliveries a year with at least an average of 100 babies delivered who weight less than 3.3 pounds, require a ventilator for over 24 hours or require surgery (DHEC R. 61-16, Minimum Standards for Licensing Hospitals and Institutional General Infirmaries).

Because there is no NICU in Horry County, many families must travel outside of the county for neonatal care.

“It’s literally like our heart is somewhere else,” said Courtney Martin, whose daughter, Allie, had to stay at MUSC for seven months.

“It’s definitely been a journey,” she added.

Martin, who lives in Horry County, unexpectedly went into labor at 23 weeks and no nearby hospital could help.

“When they tell you at 21 and a half weeks that you’ve got to get to 23 weeks or there’s no chance for survival, it’s a race against the clock,” said her husband, Ricky Martin.

Courtney Martin had an emergency C-section at MUSC where she delivered twins, Allie and Daxton.

“I was so healthy, I mean, I would’ve never thought that I would have so much trouble,” said Martin.

A few hours after the birth, the doctors told the Martin’s their little boy, Daxton, wasn’t doing well.

“His lungs were just so premature,” said Martin. “It wasn’t long before they called and told us that he was passed. We went back up and we watched them give him and bath and we held him and took pictures and, you know, they were very comforting.”

“He was a fighter,” said Ricky Martin. “He looked like a little man.”

The Martin’s said no part of this journey has been easy, so News13 asked staff members at Grand Strand Medical Center what the hospital is doing to get better care for babies in Horry County.

“Long before the March of Dimes report card came out recently we noticed that there was a need for an increased depth of services for mothers and babies in our county,” said Chief Nursing Officer at Grand Strand Medical Center, Tiffany Keys.

The hospital just added a 24/7 neonatologist to cover its Level II nursery in early February.

“What that means is that we can take care of babies who are 32 weeks gestation or greater, about 2.5 pounds or greater,” said Keys. “We can take care of feeding and growth problems and we can take care of some respiratory issues.”

Keys said there are some tiny babies they will always transfer.

“We’re not looking to be an intensive care nursery, but we do have some Level II beds,” she added.

One of those rotating neonatologists, Art Shepard, said this new position at the hospital allows for more physician supervision of sicker babies.

“So they can remain in Horry County,  they can remain close to their families and close to the support network that those families are going to need,” said Shepard.

While Grand Strand Medical Center has increased their depth of services for moms and babies, those who are extremely premature will have to be transferred out of the county.

“Just feeling like your baby’s two hours away and we have to drive there to see her it’s literally like our heart is somewhere else,” said Courtney Martin. “It’s not like she’s a hop and a skip away. If anything were to go wrong we still have to make that two-hour drive it doesn’t get shorter.”

Ricky Martin said having their daughter so far away is one of the hardest parts.

“It’s two hours of driving and worrying and wondering what you’re going to find when you get there,” he added.

The Martin’s said it would’ve been easier to maintain a normal life if Allie was closer to home while she was in the hospital. Fortunately, Allie was able to come home in February, seven months after her birth.

“She’s doing great at home,” said Courtney Martin. “Most of our appointments start in March. She will have speech, occupational therapy and physical therapy.”

Martin also said Allie especially loves spending time in her brightly colored room.