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  • Snug as a bug

    Pediatric therapist fashions 'pea pod' for premature infants that simulates the womb
  • Since calling a "pea pod" home for the past three weeks, newborn Colton Shaw is both more at ease and alert in his hospital surroundings.
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  • Since calling a "pea pod" home for the past three weeks, newborn Colton Shaw is both more at ease and alert in his hospital surroundings.
    "He seems to exercise more, and he's not as stressed," says Kristen Jones, mother of the premature infant.
    Enveloping Colton much like his mother's womb, the stretchy, fleece pouch — called a pea pod — is the invention of a creative pediatric therapist at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford. Barbara Kozol's design — a patent is pending — stimulates bone growth in premature infants by giving them something to push against, much like the walls of his mother's womb.
    Kozol is conducting a federally approved study of the pods' use in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and Special Care Nursery at Rogue Regional.
    "It's kind of embarrassing because it's so obvious," says Kozol of simulating the womb for preemies whose parents agree to their participation in the study.
    "If it helps his bone structure, go for it," says Jones, 24, of Medford. "He likes his pea pod; that's all he likes to be in."
    Unless he is being handled by family or care providers, Colton resides 24 hours per day in the pea pod, where he pushes against the elastic material much as he did for 30 weeks in utero. The pod is an alternative to the widely recognized benefits of bone stimulation and joint compression that therapists such as Kozol manually apply in 10-minute daily sessions five days per week. Despite positive outcomes, infants don't enjoy the manipulations.
    "They don't want to be pushed around; they complain," says Kozol. "It doesn't hurt them, but it's messing with them."
    The pod allows Colton to stretch his limbs and strain against the confinement at his own pace and comfort level. A month of this therapy is the goal of Kozol's study, but some subjects do so well that the hospital discharges them from care before they can finish.
    Just 10 babies in approximately 300 admitted to the NICU have completed Kozol's regimen in the past year. And the occupational therapist is looking for 10 more to compare against preemies who receive RRMC's standard therapy and a group at Eugene's Sacred Heart Medical Center who receive no such stimulation. Infants must be at least 31 weeks gestational age and otherwise healthy.
    "Colton happens to be one of those nice, healthy, little kids," says Kozol.
    An increased risk of fracture accompanies preemies' poor bone growth and density, leading to diminished height as adults. Consequently, the past decade has seen providers focus on physical-activity programs for infants in neonatal intensive care to stimulate the skeletal system.
    Finding a better way took Kozol 40 years of observation and practice at Rogue Regional, followed by a couple of years of experiments with pod-worthy fabrics. Her first prototype was stitched from Lycra, a swimsuit-type material, but it caused overheating too easily in the NICU's infants. If Kozol's fleece version still keeps a baby too warm, the central row of snaps can be left undone, exposing the naked chest and belly.
    "Sometimes, he can be all tucked in, and sometimes he can be just a little," says Kozol, demonstrating the configurations of Colton's pod.
    Pulling the pod's hood up over Colton's ears elicits a squall from the 3-pound, 5-ounce boy. But for the most part, the pod is a soothing mechanism as much as a therapeutic tool. Preemie patients who are overly irritable, but not participants in Kozol's study, often are placed in pods.
    "It's just amazing to watch him," says Colton's grandmother, Laura Jones of Medford, as her grandson stretches an arm over his head of strawberry-blond hair. "There he goes."
    Such "self-regulated" exercise, Kozol ventures, will have at least as much benefit for infants like Colton as the standard approach. And the pods, with a retail price of $20 apiece, will cost just a fraction of a therapist's intervention, estimated at more than $80 per day for a period of several weeks.
    Rogue Regional, says Kozol, remains the only hospital in the country using her pods, although she's fielded interest from elsewhere. The Talent resident who knits, crochets and quilts personally fashioned Rogue's 50 or 60 pods in several sizes and a variety of whimsical prints.
    "I'm kind of holding them close until the research is done."
    For now, the pods hold a select group of infants close while parents gain a new perspective on fetal development.
    "He kicked and moved all the time," says Jones. "It's like he's still in the womb."
    Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.
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