CRITICAL CARE: A training exercise in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit at Waikato Hospital.

Earlier this year the Prime Minister’s Science Prize went to a multidisciplinary team doing world-leading research into abnormal blood-sugar levels in newborns, work partially funded by a small Waikato trust that has been quietly supporting the critical care of premature and sick babies for nearly forty years.

Now the Waikato Sick Babies Trust has moved to diversify and grow its income by setting up a ‘named fund’ with Momentum Waikato, the region’s community foundation.

The Trust was set up in 1983 by Head Newborn Unit Pediatrician Dr Tony Cull and a group of supporters to help fund the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Waikato Hospital, which Dr Cull had established three years earlier.

Robin Morriss was recruited as a foundational trustee and treasurer by Dr Cull, after he and his wife Mary had had three premature babies, and the couple have continued to support the Trust to this day.

Current Chair of the Waikato Sick Babies Trust is Jane Pope, a veteran Neonatal Nurse Practitioner in the NICU.

“I’ve seen huge progress in prem baby medicine. Now we can better support babies’ lungs and breathing, through antenatal steroids for lung maturity and surfactant for breathing. We support and monitor the brain growth and development and carefully look after their skin and nutrition, it has all progressed.

“It is a never-ending journey of learning. Now and then we think it might be all understood, but it doesn’t last long,” says Jane.

“In the early 1980s saving a 28-week baby was remarkable, now that’s standard, it is 23-24 weeks that’s the struggle,” says Dr Phil Weston, an early trustee.

Robin and Mary’s first two prem babies had been sent to the adult intensive care unit when they were born, so they really saw the benefits of the NICU when their third baby was placed in its care soon after it opened in 1980.

Through the mid to late 1980s they helped drive the Trust’s initial public fundraising campaign which, with major support from a local Lions Club, helped gather sufficient capital to provide the ongoing investment income that ever since has been funding prem and sick baby support beyond Government budgets.

A Cambridge Edition clipping from July 1983 (pictured above) promotes the public raffle they ran that year to kick off the fundraising effort. The article emphasises that at the time huge progress was being made in premature baby care, but that the much-needed ancillary support for the new NICU came at a cost greater than the Government could meet.

The NICU’s three areas of need listed in that 1983 newspaper piece are still the funding priorities of the Sick Babies Trust to this day – research, new high-tech equipment and the upskilling of staff.

The PMs-Science-Prize-winning Neonatal Glucose Studies Team, led by Distinguished Professor Dame Jane Harding of the University of Auckland, has been one of the more high-profile programs supported by the Sick Babies Trust.

In recent years most of the Sick Babies Trust funding has been going towards training nurses and support staff, as that demand had been more immediate – their most recent grant enabled a NICU pharmacist to attend a conference in Sydney.

Since the big public fundraising push of the 1980s, the Trust’s income has come from its investment and occasional donations, most often from families of babies who have been through the NICU. The decision to start a ‘named fund’ with Momentum Waikato is significant for the trustees, past and present.

“Signing up with Momentum is a huge step for us, our biggest move in years,” says Phil.

Transferring a portion of their investment fund to Momentum diversifies the Trust’s portfolio, while taking advantage of the scale of the community foundation’s regional endowment and public-facing role.

“This is about continuing to support excellence into the future,” says Jutta van den Boom, the current Head of Department at the NICU.

“We want to increase our funding going into research in the NICU, while maintaining our current support for its staff development, so we would certainly welcome the public donating to the Waikato Sick Babies Trust Fund at Momentum.”

If you want to help support and save prem babies by contributing to more research, training and new equipment for the Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit at Waikato Hospital, please visit or contact us via