Benefis NICU Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Caring for the ‘Tiny but Mighty’

How Donors Support NICU Families:

NICU Fund: Supports enhancements to the NICU such as bili lights for jaundice treatment and NICview cameras to give parents/grandparents peace of mind when they can’t be at the bedside.

Angel Fund: Provides financial assistance for parents who travel for a baby’s treatment.

Gift of Life Housing: Provides a free place to stay for parents who travel to Great Falls to care for a baby in the NICU.

Mercy Flight: Transports expectant mothers and babies to treatment with a specialized flight team.


Benefis NICU 50th Anniversary Celebrates the ‘Tiny but Mighty’

Melody Martinsen of Choteau remembers her terror when her son arrived six weeks too soon, weighing only 4 pounds, 9 ounces and gravely ill.

Before he was even an hour old, Madison had crashed three times.

Amid the memories of that first awful night are the sight of her tiny son breathing with the help of a ventilator and Dr. Ronald Coen and Marlene Lund, RN, watching over him. Melody wept.

“They told us that if Madison began to die, they would come and get us so we could hold him, and, through the night, every time the heavy outer NICU door opened, our hearts stopped,” she said. “I think Dr. Coen worked with angels at his side, and it did take a miracle for Madison to live. We thank him for our son’s life.”

Melody and her husband, Jeff, watched the NICU staff care for Madison through a heart-valve problem, underdeveloped lungs, and a virus.

“There just aren’t words to express how amazingly grateful we were to all of those compassionate, professional, beautiful nurses who cared for Madison at his most vulnerable,” she said.

On Sept. 22, 1996, Madison came home. Today, he is an electrical engineer who recently graduated from Montana State University in Bozeman and lives in Lewistown.

Stories like Madison’s were the heart of the NICU’s 50th anniversary reunion in June, which brought back together providers, staff, retirees, NICU families, and NICU graduates – those “tiniest but mightiest of

The oldest NICU graduate at the gathering was born at 27 weeks in 1990. Dina Waldner of Fairhaven Hutterite Colony was flown to Salt Lake City for surfactant just days before the lung treatment became available here.

Dina said her sister was not excited about meeting the new preemie in the family.

“Why did you pick her?” she asked her mom. “She is not cute.”

“I have come a long ways since then,” Dina said.

The NICU reunion is a reminder that the work and heartache that comes with the job is worth it in the end, Marlene said.

Marlene attended with her grandson, Cole, who arrived at 30 weeks after kicking a hole in his mom's uterine wall. He spent 35 days in the NICU and began at 2 pounds, 4 ounces. He's 10 now.

"I say thank you to the nurses who took care of him," Marlene said. "They did an amazing job. It was hard to be on the other side of the bed."

Robyn Brantner brought her daughter, Oaqlynn, to the reunion.

She is just 18 months old and had a rocky beginning, arriving at less than 2 pounds and dropping below 1 pound as she struggled to eat (and breathe and digest). Oaqlynn spent 119 days in the NICU.

"The NICU nurses are angels," Robyn said. "They are the reason I have her. Anywhere else, she would not have lasted. They do their jobs with love and passion, and they're the reason she walks and talks. They're the reason all the kids are here, and everyone should see the miracles they have performed."

In 1972, the Deaconess Hospital Medical Center established the six-bed NICU and an air transport system to fly critically ill newborns and their mothers to the hospital through anarrangement with the military.

Marlene also was part of the NICU flight team. She remembered babies in isolettes balanced on a helicopter seat and a trash can, and a country landing strip lit by pickup headlights.

“We brought babies in on a prayer and a promise,” she said. “If they hadn’t come, they wouldn’t have survived.”

The NICU was the first in Montana and the first in the state to have a neonatologist or a neonatal nurse practitioner.

In 2009, a NICU in the new South Tower represented a departure from the outdated model of a single room with a bay of bassinets, with beeping, buzzing, and other noises that were hard on the tiny babies. The South Tower debuted with 17 private rooms with bassinets and daybeds for parents, helping encourage the family’s involvement in growing and bonding with the baby.

In 1968, when neonatal intensive care was developing as a field, babies who weighed 3-4 pounds at birth had a 25% chance of survival. Now it’s more than 95%, and the highly specialized care also helps prevent irreversible damage.

For 50 years, the Benefis NICU has been the difference for hundreds of babies. Providers, nurses, and others on staff, donors, and advocates have been with families through life, loss, and itty-bitty victories.