Pediatrics Celebrates Dedication of Newly Named NICU

Matteo Vicencio was a friend of Schatzi Kassal long before the neonatal intensive care unit at Holtz Children’s Hospital was renamed in her honor. “We had known Schatzi, and some of the doctors who would later help save Matteo’s life, long before we decided to start a family,” says Matteo’s mother Abby. “But our obstetrician practiced at a different hospital, so that’s where we headed when I started having contractions six weeks before my due date.”

Little Matteo had been diagnosed in utero with ventricular tachycardia, which can be potentially life-threatening to neonates and premature babies. With early delivery inevitable, Abby’s doctor recommended that the family head immediately to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center.

“Holtz is home to one of the largest NICUs in the nation,” boasted Miller School Dean Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., to the crowd of some 100 friends, family, staff, and former NICU patients who assembled on April 28 to celebrate the renaming of the Holtz NICU in honor of Schatzi Kassal and Project: New Born. Kassal and a group of concerned friends started the organization in 1973 to raise awareness and resources for neonatal care and research. With survival rates as high as 90 percent, the Holtz NICU ranks in the nation’s top 25, according to “America’s Best Children’s Hospitals” survey published by U.S. News & World Report.

Noting that neonatal care has made significant strides over the past few decades, Dean Goldschmidt remarked that thousands of children have seen their lives change because of the amazing work being done by neonatal specialists at Jackson. “My own mother had a terrible scare before I was born,” Goldschmidt recounted. “There was no NICU or cutting-edge technology back in those days, and when doctors couldn’t detect a heartbeat or movement, they assumed I had died.” Dean Goldschmidt reaffirmed that UHealth and Schatzi Kassal share a passion and dedication for making sure the tiniest patients survive—and thrive.

“The success of the NICU truly takes a village, but assembling a winning team starts with extraordinary leaders,” Goldschmidt concluded, referring to Steven Lipshultz, M.D., professor and chair of pediatrics, and Eduardo Bancalari, M.D., professor of pediatrics and director of the Division of Neonatology.

“We work better as a team,” Lipshultz said of the 1,000 nurses, physicians, researchers, and other specialized staff who contribute to the NICU’s success. “But that team is not just made up of medical professionals; it’s made up of families, and patients, and communities as well. Holtz is this community’s children’s hospital. And no one knows that better than Schatzi Kassal.”

“Every baby deserves a healthy start in life,” said Bancalari, “and the NICU, Schatzi Kassal, and Project: New Born are doing their best to make sure that happens.”

Addressing those gathered to share in the joy of her accomplishments, Kassal noted she had read a fortune cookie message earlier in the week that said, ‘You will soon be honored by some people you respect.’ “No truer words have been written,” Kassal said. “As I look around this evening, I see a room full of doers. There is nothing that I’ve asked of any of you that you haven’t come through. We’ve always been able to do because we do it together. These are our babies and these are our success stories.”

Four of those “success stories” and their families were in attendance to share their thanks and appreciation, including twins Hannah and Natalia Yaffarpena, now 13, who were born 23 weeks prematurely and weighed little more than 1 pound each; Marcelo Diaz Padron, who was born prematurely in 2009; and Matteo Vicencio, who is now a 5-month-old, happy, healthy boy.

“The level of care Matteo and my wife received was impressive from start to finish,” said Alex Vicencio. “I could tell right away we were in good hands, and once Matteo was born, I knew that everything would be OK. Now we want to get the word out to other people and encourage more community support and awareness for this great South Florida resource that is saving babies’ lives.”

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