It’s a long, cold trip for an infant.

Every so often, one of them must leave the cocoon of the Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital neonatal intensive care unit, and head to the MRI department.

It’s a trip doctors sometimes avoided in the past, in fact, because it was just too risky.

But thanks to a leading-edge medical device available at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital—it’s offered at no other hospital in West Michigan—even the smallest babies can make the trip safely, allowing doctors to get critical information they need to treat their tiny patients.

Called the Neonate Imaging Sub-System, this uniquely designed incubator allows preemies to receive MRI scans to evaluate their brain development and spot potential health problems.

Since its arrival at the children’s hospital in 2007, it has revolutionized care for premature infants.

“Now, a fragile baby never has prolonged exposure to the hostile environment outside of the NICU,” said Brad Betz, MD, medical director of radiology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “Everything they need is supplied by this device so they can go safely to MRI.”

The imaging system includes a temperature-controlled incubator, ventilator, vital signs monitor and infusion pumps.

While still in the neonatal intensive care unit, an infant is placed inside the incubator, which Dr. Betz said looks like a “big, plexiglass torpedo” on a trolley.

The baby remains in the temperature-controlled environment during the trip to and from the radiology department and throughout the MRI procedure. The incubator fits right into the MRI machine so the baby is not exposed to the cold air of the MRI room and can be monitored during the scan.

Dr. Betz said the imaging system is made with different kinds of metal that are not attracted to the strong magnetic field created by the MRI environment.

Typically, doctors can get the information they need using ultrasound.

“The pediatric ultrasound equipment and technologists are phenomenal at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, in ways that I have never seen anywhere else,” Dr. Betz said. “Many of the questions neonatologists have are answered by ultrasounds.”

But there are still cases where nothing but an MRI will do.

Edgar Beaumont, MD, a neonatologist and medical director of the NICU at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, said MRI results help guide doctors’ decisions about caring for their patients, particularly in unique situations when they need to pin down the anatomy in more detail.

“It’s a wonderful tool to look inside the patient’s body, and it provides remarkable detail about the structure of whatever organ we are looking at,” Dr. Beaumont said.

Dr. Beaumont said the imaging machine is commonly used on children who might have sustained brain injury. It’s also used for babies with birth defects in their chest or abdomen, when an MRI is necessary for mapping out the anatomy in more detail for surgeons.

The children’s hospital has the only Level IV NICU in West Michigan, which means it provides the highest level of care and attracts patients with complicated perinatal problems from surrounding communities.

“As you become a children’s hospital that’s pulling in patients from further and further away, you encounter rarer conditions that are more difficult to diagnose and treat,” Dr. Beaumont said. “It is vital to have the most up-to-date tools available so we can do the detective work necessary to make a diagnosis and develop a treatment plan.”

“The technology changes so quickly and is so expensive that it’s hard for facilities to keep up,” he said. “We are very fortunate to have what we have.”