Fifteen hundred feet of altitude can make a big difference.
Mary Gills has been a neonatal nurse practitioner at Yampa Valley Medical Center for five years, caring for infants less than a month old who have health problems or are struggling to learn vital motor skills. Before coming to Steamboat Springs, Gills worked the same job in Denver for 28 years, most recently at The Children's Hospital.
Babies born in Steamboat - just 1,500 feet higher than Denver - can have a much harder time breathing, Gills said.
"Most premature babies in Denver don't need (supplemental) oxygen," she said. "But the vast majority of babies born prematurely in Steamboat do."
Babies like Ethan Vasquez, who on Aug. 31 was just more than two weeks old. Under the watchful eye of Gills, Ethan slept soundly in a quiet room at the medical center, tucked into blankets and breathing with the help of a tube pumping oxygen into his tiny nose.
"He's just started to take bottle feeding," Gills said. "He's up to one or two bottles a day."
Ethan was born six weeks early. He weighed slightly more than 3 pounds at birth. On this day, he was up to more than 4 pounds but still had time to wait before going home with his parents.
"He'll stay here about another two weeks," Gills said, "until he can take all of his feedings from a bottle and gain weight at the same time."
Parents in the Yampa Valley are fortunate to have a high-quality special care nursery in Steamboat Springs. Without it, parents of premature infants would have to drive to Denver to get the proper care for their babies, often taking numerous trips back and forth for as long as a month. Gills said her nursery treats babies from as far as Craig, Meeker, Kremmling and even Baggs, Wyo.
"We can deliver babies up to eight weeks early," Gills said. "It's a huge community service for the entire Yampa Valley."
Gills, who is 54, has a hard time estimating how many infants she has cared for throughout the years.
"Probably thousands," she said.
The most challenging part of her job, Gills said, is helping nervous, anxious, frightened and stressed parents deal with their emotions.
The special care nursery is open 24 hours a day to parents and grandparents. Gills meets with parents on a daily basis and coordinates weekly meetings for parents and a team of physicians, occupational therapists and physical therapists. Reports of the baby's progress and treatments are given to parents at those meetings, she said, often providing a reassurance that comes from not just data, but from the knowledge that a team of experienced adults is caring for their baby.
"Emotional support is huge," Gills said.
Between 12 percent and 15 percent of newborn infants come to the special care nursery, Gills said.
"It's very rewarding, when you can help a family," she said. "It's a fabulous job."