A special visit to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit

We were delighted to welcome some very special visitors to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital recently.

Dr Michael Barrie and his two sons Robert and Alex visited the unit to see a plaque we have installed commemorating Michael’s late father, Dr Herbert Barrie. Dr Herbert Barrie was a leading figure in neonatology and developed one of the first NICUs in London.

Michael commented on his visit “It was wonderful to visit the outstanding new NICU at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. The new environment and facilities are world-class and the medical advances to care for these premature babies is extraordinary. My father was passionate about his area of work and he would have been delighted to see the progress which has been made in this field, one in which he was so integral all those years ago. Thank you to the staff for making us feel so welcome and taking the time to show us the fantastic new unit.”

Dr Barrie started his career at St Thomas’ where he developed an interest in the care of premature babies. He pioneered advances in resuscitation of newborns, publishing a seminal paper on the subject in The Lancet in 1963. Dr Barrie also developed a plastic tube to alleviate potential damage of using high pressures of oxygen on newborn lungs, this was known as the ‘St Thomas’s Tube’.

In 1966 Dr Barrie was appointed consultant paediatrician to Charing Cross Hospital in Fulham. At Charing Cross, he continued his ground-breaking and pioneering work in the care of premature babies. He ran a renowned department and built their first special care baby unit (SCBU) which became a centre for innovation and expertise.

At Charing Cross Hospital, Dr Barrie ran the paediatric research laboratory, where he conducted research into neonatal respiratory physiology and intensive care. He raised funds for an ambulance that could collect babies requiring intensive care from other hospitals and bring them back to Charing Cross. This was the first – and at the time the only – dedicated neonatal ambulance in the country.

In 1979, the SCBU at Charing Cross (housed in a prefab building) collapsed in a thunderstorm. Dr Barrie wrote at the time “As far as 1979 is concerned, it will always be inscribed in my memory as the year in which my own endeavours in neonatal intensive care, patiently built up over many years, were destroyed overnight and reached their lowest ebb.”

Dr Barrie then took on the difficult task of finding sufficient funds and a site for a new unit. He suggested it would be good to have a new unit at the West London Hospital, which housed the maternity department of Charing Cross Hospital.

Applause (Young Variety Club of Great Britain) donated £40,000 and in 1981 the new Neonatal Intensive Care Unit opened at the West London Hospital. Dr Barrie was still the only neonatologist in the NICU.

The West London Hospital closed in 1993 and moved all its services, including the NICU, to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.

The NICU at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital is a level 3 regional service and is designated neonatal surgical service for this region. Babies are admitted from both within this area and all over London and southeast England for specialist medical and surgical care.

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit has recently been expanded and redeveloped as part of CW+’s Critical Care Campaign with the Trust. The newly transformed NICU officially opened in 2021 and creates an optimal healing environment with the latest technology and equipment, bespoke furnishing, specialist lighting and a 40% increase in space, which means the hospital can provide life-saving care to an additional 150 babies each year.