In addition to treating newborn babies requiring critical care, neonatologist Dr. Irfan Ahmad strives to involve family members in the care of their infant, which he says is essential for providing the best possible care for babies in the CHOC neonatal intensive care unit.
“I always include parents as part of the care team when treating a baby in the NICU, especially the mother. A mother and her baby were a single unit up until right before the delivery,” Dr. Ahmad says. “Parents are an essential part of the healing team, and building a strong physician-parent relationship is an important aspect of patient- and family-centered care.”
An internationally trained neonatologist, Dr. Ahmad also serves as medical director of the surgical neonatal intensive care program at CHOC.
The program will take up residence in CHOC’s recently-opened NICU, which features 36 private rooms with the latest technology and innovations in neonatal care. The 25,000-square-foot unit is nearly triple the size of CHOC’s prior NICU space, and will allow parents to stay overnight with their babies.
“We strongly believe in mother-baby bonding and the value of breast feeding, and our new private NICU rooms are designed to optimize that,” he says.
The recently-opened NICU also features three rooms with surgical lights, allowing minor procedures to be performed at the bedside.
The only Surgical NICU on the West Coast, CHOC’s program is comprised of a multidisciplinary team including neonatologists, pediatric surgeons and anesthesiologists.
“What inspires me the most about care being delivered at CHOC is the combination of passion for helping babies, multidisciplinary interactions, use of modern technology and an atmosphere of teaching,” Dr. Ahmad says. “From dedicated neonatologists present 24 hours a day in the NICU, nurses constantly advocating for best care, nutritionists and pharmacists rounding with the team, physical therapists, wound care teams, lactation specialists and social workers all working together to help a fragile small baby has no parallel.”
Dr. Ahmad’s Surgical NICU team also offers extracorporeal life support (ECLS), also referred to as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) for patients. CHOC is the only facility in Orange County that offers ECLS, which supports the heart and lungs by taking over the heart’s pumping function and the lung’s oxygen exchange until they can recover from injury, surgery or illness.
In addition to neonatologists, the dedicated ECLS team is composed of cardiothoracic and pediatric surgeons, intensive care physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists and cardiopulmonary perfusionists who are experts in their fields and have received additional education to manage the complex equipment and medical needs of the children needing this life-saving technology.
In addition to stewarding the Surgical NICU, Dr. Ahmad’s special clinical interests include caring for babies who require surgery, including those born with structural abnormalities such as diaphragmatic hernia, intestinal obstruction and imperforate anus. His clinical interests also include babies who develop the intestinal infection necrotizing enterocolitis or who have intestinal perforation. His most common diagnoses include intestinal obstruction and trachea-esophageal fistula.
Mandibular Distraction Program
Dr. Ahmad is especially passionate about caring for babies with difficulty breathing due to an undersized or recessed lower jaw, which can be caused by a condition called Pierre Robin Sequence.
In 2008, Dr. Ahmad helped launch a mandibular distraction program at CHOC. Dozens of infants have benefited from mandibular distraction osteogenesis, which involves a plastic surgeon placing a special device in the small lower jaw to expand it, prompting new bone growth over a period of two to three weeks.
Traditionally, babies with this condition have been treated by placing a tracheostomy that remains in place for several years until the child outgrows the condition. Mandibular distraction is a more permanent solution that takes a few months to complete, allowing a baby to go on to have a normal, healthy development.
Constant quality improvement
Passionate about quality improvement, Dr. Ahmad serves as director of quality improvement for NICUs affiliated with CHOC Specialists. He has participated in several quality improvement initiatives with Vermont Oxford Network and California Perinatal Quality Improvement Collaborative. This includes a project to improve the transition of care for surgical cases from one team to another, decreasing delivery room intubations and preventing premature newborn babies from developing hypothermia.
As the director of quality improvement for CHOC’s network of nine NICUs, he partners with quality improvement teams at each unit in carrying out improvement projects based on local needs. The team currently has nine simultaneous quality improvement projects in the hospitals where CHOC neonatologists round.
Passionate about educating the next generation of pediatricians and neonatologists, Dr. Ahmad also serves as NICU education director for UC Irvine’s pediatric residency program and is an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at UC Irvine. He also trains neonatology fellows through CHOC’s partnership with Harbor-UCLA Medical Center’s neonatal-perinatal medicine fellowship program.
His current research efforts include studying the breathing patterns of full-term babies in order to refine inclusion criteria for the mandibular distraction procedure. He is also currently studying the clinical outcomes of CHOC’s surgical NICU program.
Pursuing his calling to care for children
Dr. Ahmad attended medical school at Aga Khan University in Pakistan. He completed a residency in pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma and a fellowship in neonatal-perinatal medicine at UC Irvine. He has been on staff at CHOC for 10 years. He knew from an early age that he wanted to care for children, so pursuing a pediatrics residency after medical school was a natural choice.
“I was exposed to various specialized fields like cardiology and oncology, but I wanted to take care of the whole patient. I also wanted to see when I could have the most impact on the life of a person,” Dr. Ahmad says. “During my residency when I worked in the NICU, I noted that good care in the first few minutes of life was so critical. Effective resuscitation, followed by intensive care in the NICU could make all the difference for the patient, who can then live a long and accomplished life.”
Dr. Ahmad finds inspiration in the strength of his patient’s families, and is continually renewed and humbled by their gratitude.
“I have been impressed by the strength of the families who have a sick little baby in the NICU. It is extremely difficult to have your newborn on a ventilator struggling for life. Yet, we see the moms and dads holding on to hope and being there for their baby,” Dr. Ahmad says. “Neonatology is a very difficult field with long hours taking care of very sick babies. The gratitude you get from parents when the baby is finally well and going home and the amazing photographs and cards that are sent to us makes everything worthwhile.”
In his spare time, Dr. Ahmad enjoys golfing with his children and developing his photography skills.
Learn more about neonatal services at CHOC.