Stanford Medicine Newsletter Updates For the Local Community

 

The pioneer of preemie care

Philip Sunshine, MD

   

“Well, I think little Will is pretty close to being able to go home.”

That’s the opinion—and you can count on it—as it comes from 81-year-old neonatologist Philip Sunshine, MD, who has cared for more than 30,000 premature babies in his long and still very active career.

“He’s really feeding well and growing,” Sunshine continued. “Although preemies have an immune system that’s very delicate, he has no infections.”

It’s that big moment when Will’s parents hear their preemie is finally ready to leave Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital’s Intermediate Care Nursery for that first ride in the family minivan. But receiving this welcome news from Sunshine, a grandpa in lab coat and running shoes, ties the family to something larger and more historic.

“Phil is actually a pioneer and one of the creators of our discipline,” said neonatologist David Stevenson, MD, a professor of pediatrics who is proud to have been mentored by Sunshine. “He’s one of our history’s best.”

Sunshine arrived at Stanford in 1957, when the School of Medicine was located in San Francisco and the term “neonatology” had yet to be coined. His own story parallels the narrative of modern-day neonatal care and a revolution in saving lives.

“When I first started seeing preemies, survival was less than 50 percent,” Sunshine recalled. “Now it’s well over 90 percent.”

The co-founder of the California Perinatal Association, Sunshine has been both author and witness to an explosion of research and care. “I chose this field not just because I love babies but also because I found it very exciting,” he said. “In 1963, when I finished my fellowship, there had been only a few papers published that even talked about neonatology.”

A renowned scientist as well as clinician, he was a member of the team that first implemented mechanical ventilation at Stanford and devised the first scoring system for selection of infants to be treated with assisted ventilation. He was the first in the United States to describe a child with ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency, a rare and deadly metabolic disorder, and he led ground-breaking research in developmental gastroenterology and nutrition in newborns, among other contributions.

Sunshine remembers one key practice he helped advance that is now so common, it would seem bizarre to do otherwise. “Up until around 1966, parents weren’t allowed to even come into the nursery with their babies,” he said. “But we discovered that parents provide care that doctors and nurses could not. Parents get to know their babies at an early stage of life, and the babies relate well to this.”

Through it all, he has been famously unflashy. In the 1970s, while leading divisions in neona-tology and gastroenterology at Stanford and serving on national neonatology boards and associations, he tooled around Palo Alto in an old Dodge Dart that lived to see 275,000 miles. “We also used to joke about the way he dressed, with lots of keys and stuff, so that people mistook him for a night janitor,” Stevenson recalled.

Sunshine turned 81 on June 16 but has no plans to leave the institution he has been a part of for 54 years. He also has held leadership positions at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.

“I’ve been lucky,” said Sunshine, “and if my health stays OK, I’ll keep working. My agreement with the division chief is that as long as I do an excellent job, he’ll keep me on.”

William Benitz, chief of the Division of Neonatology, is only too happy to have Sunshine around: “From my perspective, Phil just might work forever. He’s still fully engaged in babies and their care—not as a detached authority figure but in a very intimate way. He is extraordinarily important to our families and to our mission as neonatologists, and his perspective and achievements are timeless.”

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