Even though I am passionate about natural and complementary approaches to pediatrics, I am also incredibly inspired and awed by the amazing advances and achievements of western pediatrics and the people that dedicate their lives to working with kids. I recently read two western pediatric memoirs – “Healing Children” by Kurt Newman, and “Learning to Listen” by Barry Brazelton - that I enjoyed so much I thought I would review them both. If these reviews pieque your interest, you might like to read them too.
"Healing Children” by Dr Kurt Newman
This memoir moved me to tears more times than I would like to admit! It is a fascinating account of the trials, tribulations and advances the field of pediatrics told through the lens of his own life and those of the children he has worked with. Newman expertly weaves together his own story – from his humble beginnings as a medical student, to the CEO of a large children's hospital in Washington, D.C. – with an insightful analysis of the development of his chosen field of pediatrics and the infrastructure supporting it over a period of 40 years, and most interestingly, detailed case histories from some of the brave, resilient and inspiring children he has treated and the lessons they taught him.
Many of his stories directly weave all three of these elements together in a few short pages. For example, he described one night when he was on a date with a nurse, and was called into surgery. He took her with him, hoping to impress her. The surgery was unprecedented in its complexity – a baby had been born with several of his organs on the outside of his body. He completed the surgery successfully and on the way home, expected to be lavished with praise. Instead, he said, he 'got walloped'! The nurse had been shocked at how the whole surgical team had left the baby alone, emotionally (and physically at times) – cold, scared and exposed in the frigid Operating Room. Having never considered this before, Newman took this criticism on-board and never left a child or baby alone again, began to advocate for the emotional wellbeing of children undergoing surgey, instituted this as hospital policy when he was in a position to do so – and ended up marrying the nurse!
Newman celebrates and champions pediatrics as a highly specialised subsection of medicine. He recalls falling in love with pediatrics as a medical student when the big money and prestige was in other areas. He laments its relative lack of status and recognition, as it is so obvious to him that investing in the health of our children has untold benefits for the health of our future generations, however the majority of funding and research go towards adult diseases and treatment. However he has spent a large proportion of his career trying to advance the field. He was at the forefront of establishing a major institute for surgical innovation, devoted to caring for the whole child. The aims included making pediatric surgery minimally invasive and pain free, and making hospitals more holistic by attending to the non-medical healing needs of children and families. His vision has led to many other advancements and he is recognised as a national leader in pediatric health in the United States, as well as in his own hospital.
In this memoir, Newman describes facing strong criticism and using it to change things for the better, for example changing surgery protocols for children with autism to make them less traumatic for both the child and the family. He also describes how he made the step from thinking about surgery as an individual practice, to (at first, reluctantly) undertaking research into the bigger picture of outcomes of patients at the hospital, and then passionately developing new hospital standards that put the children's interests and benefits ahead of any individual surgical egos.
Throughout the book, Newman consistently reiterates his impassioned belief that a hospital dedicated to children is the best place for kids to go. His practical take-home message is that the best outcomes for children in an emergency situation come from going not to the closest ER, but the one with the best pediatric specialities (ideally, a pediatric hospital). Even though it might take longer to get there, once you are there you will have the best care immediately available, and reduce the risk of delayed treatment that can have serious consequences. He recommends taking a trip to your closest pediatric emergency ER, getting familiar with it, and making an emergency plan in case you are ever in need of their help.
I listened to this as an audiobook and Dr Newman narrated it himself, I loved hearing him tell the story of his life in his own words. This book was moving, poignant and inspiring – I highly recommend it to anyone with children, or an interest in children's health. If I ever – god forbid – need a pediatric surgeon, I would be so lucky to have someone with his passion and dedication. I am so glad there are doctors like him out there making the world a better place for our children, and by extension, for all of us.
"Learning to Listen" – Dr Barry Brazelton
This is an incredible memoir spanning almost an entire century! Brazelton's story begins in a much earlier time as he graduated as a doctor in 1943. He has had a truly remarkable career, travelling all over the world (including travelling to war-torn Boznia in his 70's) - practicing, researching, teaching and advocating for infant health & development. He is 99 today and still engaged in advocacy – truly his has been a life dedicated to children and their families.
Brazelton's autobiography discusses the background and context for many of his greatly influential contributions to pediatrics. For example, he was at the forefront of research into infant attachment in the 1940's, contributing signficantly to the development of “Attachment Theory”. He developed an innovative measurement tool for newborns called the “Neonatal Behavioural Assessment Scale (NBAS)” in 1973 which was widely used and paved the way for more modern approaches to assessing newborns. He also developed a theory of what he called “Touchpoints” in the 70's which was groundbreaking at the time. “Touchpoints” are predictable periods during a child's development when they seem to be regressing, but are actually just about to make a breakthrough - like learning how to walk. Brazelton was (and remains) committed to educating parents about these Touchpoints so they can be prepared for periodic backslides in behaviour which can be protective for the health and wellbeing of both child and family. A popular modern book (and app) that I read early in my parenting journey was “The Wonder Weeks” which I now recognise as directly informed by Brazelton's work.
I found this memoir very interesting and inspiring, although it was a little slow and academic in parts. It also seemed a bit self-congratulatory in parts but I think after all his achievements, which include the above, plus writing 24 popular books, hosting a successful television show and many other accolades, I think he deserves to be proud of what he has done! I loved learning about his travels around the world, studying and comparing cultural attitudes and practices around childbearing and infant care – from Mexico, Guatamala, Kenya, Japan and China – even travelling with the famous Jane Goodall on one of his trips. There were some amazing insights from the various cultures and countries he visited and an urge to recognise that there are many different approaches to infant care.
I also loved that even as early as the 1940's, Brazelton recognised that a 'top down' approach as a pediatrician was less than ideal, and he instead dedicated his career to working in partnership with parents and families for the benefit of children. “I began to see my job as learning to like parents. When I changed and began trusting them, they started to trust themselves. We were no longer adversaries. We could be a team and work towards the child's best interests”. Many modern pediatricians have yet to learn this, in my experience!
I recommend this book to anyone interested in theories of infant development, cultural differences in infant care, and anyone interested in the life stories of incredible, inspirational people.
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