When Marcia Maltese gave birth to her son, Matthew, at Holy Cross Hospital 28 years ago, Room 367 was a bit more austere than it is today. There was no stenciled border of flowers on the walls, no soft upholstered glider in which to rock the baby to sleep in the wee hours of the morning.
And never did she imagine that one day a mother might be able to show off her new baby to family across the country--via television.
But that's exactly what Matthew Maltese and his wife, Heather, of Catonsville, Md., did recently with their 4-day-old baby, Miriam, in the same Room 367. As Heather Maltese cradled Miriam, a tiny camera, connected to a TV and telephone, transmitted the image to suburban Seattle, where Heather's sister, Laura Warr, waited for her first glimpse of her niece.
"Wow, this is just like being together, a high-tech family reunion," said Heather Maltese, who could see her sister and her sister's baby, who was born in September.
Holy Cross is the first Washington area hospital to provide the videoconferencing service, developed and operated by Access Family TV in Nashville. The service uses a camera and receiver unit connected to a standard phone and TV. Live video and audio signals are transmitted over the phone.
A camera and receiver unit is shipped to friends and family for $49.95 and can be used for 48 hours before it must be returned. Connections of the parties are made through a toll-free number.
Access Family TV has equipped about 1,000 other hospitals across the country with the technology since it began the service about a year ago. Next year, the company plans to introduce its videoconference program to Arlington County hospitals.
In addition to videoconferencing, Holy Cross plans next month to begin another foray into high-tech services for patients and their families in the maternity ward. New parents will be able to log on to a Web site, babypressconference.com, connect with friends and family and--using a camera mounted on the computer--transmit video and audio of their baby via the Internet.
Those connected to the site through a password will be able to see the live video and can type questions to the parents. They will then be able to hear and watch the parents' responses on the computer screen. Because it's chock-full of ads inviting those logged on to send gifts to the baby, the service is free.
According to Holy Cross President and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Sexton, the hospital's new high-tech services will be popular.
Holy Cross, with more than 6,300 births annually, delivers more babies than any other hospital in Maryland or the District. "The reaction we've gotten so far to Access Family TV is that [the families] love the idea it's available," he said. "People love the visual side. They all want to see who the baby looks like."
In Room 367, Laura Warr, on the TV screen, is doing just that. "Hi, there, little Miriam," she croons to her niece from 3,000 miles away in Washington state. "Boy, you've got such black hair," she said, looking questioningly at Heather and Matthew, who have light brown and reddish-brown hair.
Then she holds her month-old daughter Meredith up to the camera. First, Meredith's head looms into view. As it moves, however, her head becomes digitized and almost unrecognizable until she is still again. In fact, anything that moves becomes digitized until it is stationary. In addition, Warr said she had trouble hearing her family at Holy Cross, primarily because a speaker phone was used.
Pat Thompson, president of Access Family TV, said these problems will be resolved soon. He said the company plans to introduce its service in a high-definition television format next year. The program will convert analog pictures to digital ones, allowing for sharper images, even for those without HDTV sets.
"I look at the current quality as being akin to the old days with TV when you'd have to keep adjusting the rabbit ears to get decent reception for the ballgame," Thompson said. "Then it was novelty enough just to be able to bring that game into your living room. Similarly, today we have the ability to see the baby and share that moment in a way you never could before."