Walkers start the 2011 March for Babies at Mercer County Park. This year’s walk, led by Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton, is April 21.

By Michele Alperin

For Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton president Anthony “Skip” Cimino, the March of Dimes has had both personal and professional implications.

Of course, he is honored for himself and his hospital to be selected as the local leader of the March for Babies, the biggest fundraiser of an organization whose mission is to improve the health of babies. But, Cimino, whose grandson was born prematurely, said, “It is something that has directly affected my family.”

The March of Dimes has aided many families, and, in fact, the results of its research and educational efforts have so penetrated the national consciousness that they are almost truisms.

“The March of Dimes is responsible for a lot of known facts: You should not drink when you are pregnant; you should have a healthy lifestyle when you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant; you should take folic acid while you are pregnant to prevent birth defects and spinal bifida,” said Kitara Garner, senior community director of the Central Jersey division of the March of Dimes.

As to why Cimino is the right person to head the April 21 March for Babies at Mercer County Park, Garner said he is a resident of Mercer County who has great connections and who can really help spread the March of Dimes mission and garner support in the local community.

She noted that RWJ Hamilton has been supporting the March of Dimes for at least 10 years and said the hospital is aligned with the nonprofit organization’s mission to provide better resources for child and maternal health.

Cimino is appreciative of what the March of Dimes has done for his hospital.

“Its research and education help improve the clinical outcomes,” he said. “It’s not some ephemeral concept. It happens day in, day out.”

The March of Dimes this year celebrates its 75th anniversary. Founded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938 to fight polio, the organization supported the lab of Jonas Salk, whose vaccine led to the eradication of polio in the United States by 1979.

“We are one of the only organizations that can say we accomplished our original mission,” Garner said.

In the 1960s, the March of Dimes shifted its focus to birth defects and infant mortality, and in 2003 to a very specific focus on prematurity. By 2020, Garner said, their goal is to reduce the prematurity birth rate to 9.6 percent. Currently, the premature birth rate is at 11.7 percent, having declined for the third year in a row.

Even if a hospital does not get direct financial support from the March of Dimes, the organization’s research dollars help develop vaccines, therapies, medicines and guidelines for care that help hospitals do their work better. RWJ Hamilton neonatologist Marilyn Georgi, for example, sees many babies born between 32 and 36 weeks.

“They are born with a multitude of issues,” she said, “and the March of Dimes supports research in those areas so that we can take better care of the babies so they can fit into the community and have normal lives.”

Premature birth is the No. 1 cause of newborn death—according to a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics—and is something Cimino said the hospital sees on a regular basis. Janice Steck, a registered nurse in the neonatal intermediate care unit, said that experience is the source of her own commitment to raising funds in the March for Babies.

“We see babies that are born early, before term, that come in with respiration, gastrointestinal, feeding, and growth issues, and we help them to grow and develop to their term date—at which time they can go home, and function as healthy babies.”

One contributing factor to premature births is Caesarian sections before 39 weeks that are not medically necessary, and which are carried out for a variety of reasons. Sometimes mothers-to-be are uncomfortable and tired of being pregnant, or their doctors are going to be out of town. The March of Dimes is working to create awareness of the dangers of premature birth.

The brain, for example, at 35 weeks is only two-thirds the size it will be at 39 weeks. So the March of Dimes is talking to nurses and obstetricians and reaching out to pregnant women to encourage them to wait if an earlier birth is not medically necessary.

“Having that baby early, you never know what kind of problems the child may have in the long run—when they get older or even as babies because their brains are not fully developed,” Garner said.

Cimino said he values both the research and pre-term education that March of Dimes has done to reduce the number of Caesarian sections in the United States and the benchmarks it has established.

“All those things benefit us as a society, in terms of the delivery of the child as well as postnatal care,” he said.

The hospital is reaching out to the community to support the March for Babies through Facebook and its Center for Health and Wellness, and hospital staff are fundraising through bake sales, silent auctions, basket raffles, T-shirt campaigns, sales of jewelry by community artists and, of course, the March for Babies.

There is no fee to participate in the march, Garner said, but the March of Dimes encourages all walkers to raise money. The 75th anniversary celebration is inspiring creativity in some of the walkers. For example, a youth group has committed to raising $1,938, in honor of the year the March of Dimes was founded.

The money raised by the March for Babies supports national research grants and local community grants. One of these, in partnership with the Children Home Society in Trenton, seeks to identify and manage medical and behavioral risk factors to improve the outcomes of subsequent pre-term births.

Cimino’s connection with the March of Dimes goes back a long way.

“I remember as a child in Klockner Elementary School, having these little cards that had dimes on them,” he says. “When you filled them up, you got buttons from the March of Dimes.”

More recently, his once-premature grandson is a living example of the March of Dimes’ success. Cimino said today he is a happy, rambunctious 5-year-old.

“Anything we can do for the health of those in the dawn of life is incredibly important to us because they represent in large measure our future as a country,” Cimino said.

To for more information or to sign up, go to marchforbabies.org.