Australian-first journey uses 'ICU fit for the skies' to save critically ill baby

Cradled in his mother's arms, Davey Marika is just six weeks old and barely knows life outside of hospital walls.

He has yet to lay eyes on his home town of Nhulunbuy, and many of his family back in that coastal community at one point thought they would never see him alive.

Two hospitals at opposite ends of the country have coordinated an Australian-first rescue journey to save the infant, using new technology they hope will improve the survival rate of critically ill babies across the Northern Territory.

Davey was born in Darwin the day the tropical northern city was being battered by Cyclone Marcus, and entered respiratory failure after developing severe lung problems a short time later.

"Despite having lots and lots of treatment here in the neonatal intensive care unit at Royal Darwin Hospital, he continued to deteriorate," paediatrician Louise Woodward said.

"We faced the issue of not having any further treatment to offer him."

There was treatment available, but many thousands of kilometres away.

PHOTO: Louise Woodward is a paediatrician with the Royal Darwin Hospital. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)

"We had come to the realisation that he was going to die without further treatment, and we were really hopeful that he would make it to Melbourne, but we were also very worried that he was too unstable to move," Dr Woodward said.

Journey made possible thanks to donation

A new neonatal transport incubator, donated to the hospital by the Humpty Dumpty Foundation and only recently made ready for use, provided a solution to the tyranny of distance.

PHOTO: Julie Marika hails from Nhulnubuy and travelled with her grandson to Melbourne for the first time. (ABC Radio Darwin: Jesse Thompson)

According to Dr Woodward, the trip still made hospital staff nervous because of how meticulously it had to be mapped out; even placing the baby in the incubator took planning.

And until Davey's journey, no Australian team had attempted a trip of such distance.

"This is the first time that a baby has been transported such a long way using a high frequency ventilator," Dr Woodward said.

"It's an Australian first for Darwin, and it's not often you get to say that."

The incubator is effectively an intensive care unit fit for the skies.

It monitors babies' temperatures as they are given medication and, crucially, oxygen through a ventilator, and Care flight's fixed-wing aircraft are equipped to host the technology.

"If you imagine this is the baby's lung, it means the ventilator can improve the condition of the baby with these pulses of air that go through," Dr Woodward said, holding the ventilator as it bounced with air it dispelled.

"It also uses an enormous amount of power, so we had to be very meticulous about the type of equipment we took on board."

These constraints meant they had about seven hours to travel to Melbourne.

They touched down shortly after six.

'My heart cried'

Today, baby Davey is on the path to recovery.

"When I got the phone call from Dr Louise that he'd arrived in Melbourne safe, I thanked heaven for the journey and the doctors," grandmother Julie Marika said.

"I was the happiest grandma, and my heart cried."

The family were happy to have their baby return to Darwin this week, after a long journey to a new city burdened by the thought that little Davey might die.

"It was a very, very frightening journey for my grandson and for me and my daughter too," Ms Marika said.

The incubator donation will mean other critically ill babies like Davey — including those from remote and regional areas in the NT — can now be transferred interstate to get the care they need.

The Marika family are glad it has kept their newest member alive, but are looking forward to finally returning home to Nhulunbuy soon.

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This article was published and provided by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. For articles like this, please click here.

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