Saturday, March 29, 2008

Protecting Preemies from Noise

I've been to a NICU once, and during that visit there were just four of us adults in the room with a handful of preemies. We made sure we kept the volume on our conversation low, but as wide open as the room was, I wondered what it was like when many people were there. The babies need their rest during that stage and the rooms seemed potentially conducive to noise. Given that, I'm think this system is a great tool for NICUs.
Warning lights hover over the snoozing patients in Riley Hospital for Children's neonatal intensive care unit, ready to flash whenever sound levels creep beyond normal conversation. As decibels rise, the colors on the new monitoring system change from green to yellow to red, hushing chatty parents or doctors so the babies get the rest they need to develop.
Smith, 43, had no training as a sound engineer and no plans to become an entrepreneur when his son Sean was born five weeks premature in 2000. But he noticed Sean flinch in response to bright light in the NICU of St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital, and he wound up designing a system to soften the unit's lighting.

Then the nurses asked him what he could do about sound.

"That's really when I realized that there was no good way out there to measure sound, other than your standard, hand-held meter," he said.
The former car mechanic filled hours of spare time in the evenings and on weekends researching sound standards and building a system.

Smith, who tinkered in radio and TV electronics in high school, hired an acoustical engineer to help. They created a ceiling-mounted system of microphones that picked up sound and funneled data back to a large control panel.

"There was a lot of wiring, a lot of labor, a lot of programming," he said.

St. Vincent paid around $100,000 for the system, which it installed about five years ago. Smith had no interest in shopping his invention to other hospitals because the work took so much time.

Other hospitals came a knocking though, and now this system is Smith's business. I wish him and his his system all the success in the world.

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