Alabama hospital's #hairraisingchallenge campaign aims to garner awareness, funds for preemies

When Om Prakash Jha, MD, saw nurses sporting a "Trolls"-style hairdo as a fun thing for patients, it sparked a campaign idea to benefit preemies in the neonatal intensive care unit.

Dr. Jha, a neonatologist who has worked at the Mobile-based University of South Alabama Children's & Women's Hospital for nearly two years, based his idea off the Ice Bucket Challenge, which was designed to promote awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and raise money for disease research.

Dr. Jha and others at the hospital created a Facebook message for people to copy and paste on their wall. The message is typically accompanied by a picture and includes links to two donation pages, one for USA Children's and Women's and another for giving through Children's Miracle Network Hospitals.

The message reads: "In the absence of medical care, a premature baby born four months early would not survive, and many cultures in the past would leave them on the ground to pass away. NICU teams everywhere 'raise them up' and work day and night to change the destiny for these most fragile forms of human life." The message then asks readers to challenge three friends to "Raise Their Hair Up" and post a picture within 24 hours using the #hairraisingchallenge hashtag or make a donation to USA Children's and Woman's Hospital NICU.

Dr. Jha recently answered questions from Becker's Hospital Review about the campaign and what it means to him.

Note: Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Question: When did the fundraising start and where did the idea come from?

OJ: [In] the first week [of] June I was working in the NICU over the weekend where two of my nurses had a "Trolls"-style hairdo. I intuitively took a picture, and when I was looking at that picture, I thought, "There is a deeper meaning to what they're doing." Their subconscious is trying to tell them something where they're not able to verbalize it. They're fighting a force of nature, which is effectively what they do at their day job also, saving babies who nature has destined not to survive and trying to keep them alive. So that's their day job and then they're doing this, they're defying gravity, another force of nature.

That's how the whole narrative came to my head. People know babies born three to four months early, around 22 [to] 24 weeks, the nature's default is they will not survive, and ancient cultures put these premature babies on the ground so they would just pass away. And 60 years back when the specialty of neonatology started, people used that analogy to say we are raising them up off the ground. The layperson … see[s] the baby has gone through a long struggle and then the [baby] comes out of the NICU. However, [laypeople] don't always know what is happening behind those closed doors of the NICU when these babies get admitted. Their organ systems were not ready for survival outside of mom, so effectively they were born on the wrong end of the nature spectrum of life, and they're struggling each day. Yes, we support them, but the struggle is effectively their own. The babies will have to survive on whatever support we can give them, and that is how they reach that other end of the spectrum to leave the NICU.

So the campaign was just another way to have other people recognize or understand that struggle of the babies that they are countering. [The babies are] fighting one force of nature, that's life and death, and for the general population to show their appreciation or their solidarity to the struggles of the baby to conquer another force of nature, the force of gravity.

Q: Why did you want to fundraise for this specific cause?

OJ: Being a neonatologist, that was my day job, I see this, and … people who work in the NICU, they see it, but people outside of the NICU, unfortunately unless they have their own babies who are born premature, they don't see the struggle of these babies. And overall the specialty is still developing, so looking at the bigger picture, there's still a lot of research which can be done regarding the outcomes these babies have. Their brains have a tendency to bleed, their intestines have a tendency to certainly die out, sometimes babies outgrow their lung capacity so they eventually go into lung failure so the lung is not able to provide enough oxygen. So there's a lot of research that can be done to improve or quicken the development of the lungs, which will make the brain a little more resilient so there's no spontaneous bleeding in the brain.

Q: What is the ultimate goal with the campaign? Have you reached this goal?

OJ: The smaller goal is to have new equipment, which the NICU needs. It's an 80-bed unit [admitting approximately 900 babies each year, with nearly 20 percent of the babies being transported from area referring hospitals]. And here we are saving babies at 22 weeks.

What I'm seeing here is people have a lot of passion. They've been doing it for 20, 30 years, saving these babies, and they have had huge success. But with time, new technology is coming in, and we are serving a huge population in Alabama and Mississippi. There is equipment that needs to be updated. So the smaller goal is to get that equipment, including a transport incubator and equipment for ventilation, but the bigger goal and the bigger intention is to have participation as far wide as possible across the whole nation and for some support for the research.

Q: Where does the campaign go from here?

OJ: There is no specific timeline. My intention personally is to inform and make everyone in the country aware of the sufferings of a premature baby. Until that happens, I would love this to continue.


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