A larger home for the tiniest babies

         Dr. Lewis Rubin held baby Olivia Munoz before him and gazed at her with a smile.

         “You’re a big girl,” he told her as she stared back with wide, curious eyes.

         She is, indeed – thanks to Dr. Rubin and his colleagues. Olivia weighed only 1 pound, 1 ounce when she was born in her mother’s 23rd week of pregnancy. She was among the sickest and most fragile of babies. Dr. Rubin, who holds USF’s Pamela S. and Leslie M. Muma Endowed Chair in Neonatology, knew she faced long odds to survive.


Now nine months old, Olivia Munoz, here with dad Roberto Munoz and mom Jasmine Brito, is up to 11 pounds, 12.1 ounces.

         But nine months after her birth, Olivia is thriving. And so she returned Tuesday to Tampa General Hospital for a celebration: a tour of the new Jennifer Leigh Muma Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, a partnership of USF Health and Tampa General that will give more babies like Olivia the best possible chance at a healthy life.

        “We truly look at this as a remarkable day for the NICU, as well as the greater Tampa Bay community,” Dr. Rubin told the crowd. “We will not only provide excellent care for newborns, but we’re also focused on research and improvement of that care.”

         “High-tech, high-touch” is how Dr. Rubin, medical director of the NICU, likes to describe the new unit: a facility that links the best and newest technology to care for sick and premature babies with a more comforting, nurturing environment for those babies and their families.


Dr. Lewis Rubin says Olivia, born in her mother’s 23rd week of pregnancy, is doing remarkably well.

         Once the unit opens, it will have 82 individual neonatal beds, as well as a separate 12-bed transitional area. The facility is designed to help babies stay in a quiet, dark, stress-free environment. Rooms have dimmer switches, rubber floors and calm blue and green tones. Pull-out recliners will allow parents to spend more time with their babies. A separate lounge area will have a laundry, showers and a kitchen.

        Two special “Caroline’s Rooms” are designed to allow parents and friends to go for family meetings, quiet time, or prayer.

        Technology is designed to help the babies as well. A large room can support three babies who need to go on heart-lung bypass or hemodialysis. Patient care providers will carry their own wireless communication devices. Babies will be continually monitored.


The private rooms in the new NICU allow babies to rest in a more soothing environment. A few rooms are equipped with moveable walls for families with twins.  

      Most of the unit, with 68 beds, will open Nov. 30. The rest will open soon after.

         The $35 million new unit was is funded in part by a $6 million gift from the Mumas, who made the donation in memory of their daughter, Jennifer Leigh Muma, who died in a neonatal nursery.

         “The Mumas have given not just funds and support, but their hearts and their time,” said Deana Nelson, chief operating officer of Tampa General Hospital, at Tuesday’s tour.

          Pamela Muma said she’s excited to see the project so close to completion.

         “It’s been a passion of mine for over 20 years,” she said. “I am so excited that together with Tampa General and USF Health, we were able to put this together, and put in a new NICU, and bring in one of the finest neonatologists in the country with Dr. Rubin.”

          Her goal, she said, is to have the entire 55,000 square feet unit provide a more comfortable and hopeful space – from the mural of children on the walls to the quieter and more spacious, private surroundings.

        “We’re hoping it will become the finest in the Southeast and hopefully in the U.S.,” Pam Muma said. “It’s just going to be a healthier environment for the sickest babies and their families.”


Lakeland resident Linda Walther Snavely, an artist and children’s book illustrator, puts the final touches on a mural for the NICU.

       For Dr. Robert Nelson, USF professor and chair of pediatrics, the difference between the private rooms of the new NICU and the cramped open bay of the old one is stark.

         “I’ve been here almost 18 years, and it’s been all of our dreams over that time that we could have what we’re going to have in a few weeks,” Dr. Nelson said. “The quality of care, the experience of the families will be steps above what is possible in the old unit. It almost makes me wish I was at the beginning of my career.”

         The day Olivia was born, she was only 10 1 /2 inches long and her skin was paper-thin.  Her mom, Jasmine Brito, still carries a picture of her first day of life, showing how her little body was dwarfed by a diaper nearly as big as she was, a blindfold to protect her delicate eyes and a tangle of tubes. Dr. Rubin explained all the problems Olivia could face to her parents.


Dr. Rubin talks with the press about his hopes for the new NICU and thanks the Muma family.

        “Dr. Rubin was in the picture since day one,” Brito said. “He was always so open with us, and quick to explain everything for us, right up until the day she was discharged. He’s amazing.”

         Now, months after Olivia finally got to go home, the family has returned, snapping photos and inspecting the new NICU.

         “We are truly honored and grateful to have Olivia and excited to see the NICU,” Brito said.

– Story by Lisa Greene, photos by Eric Younghans, USF Health Communications