WASHINGTON — Decades ago, Dr. Kurt Newman walked out of the operating room feeling completely defeated.
He just finished surgery on a young child who had “the worst type” of liver cancer, which had spread throughout his body.
“We knew we hadn’t gotten all of it. We’d gotten 99 percent, but usually that isn’t enough,” said Newman, president and CEO of Children’s National Health System.
But with the combination of post-surgical treatments and “the incredible ability of children’s tissues to grow back,” Newman said the little boy was playing baseball six months later.
Recently, that same patient just got engaged to be married.
“And I’ve seen those stories over and over,” Newman added.
Working in a children’s hospital, day in and day out, may seem like a depressing job. You see 4-year-olds with cancer, infants with heart conditions, and teens with debilitating diseases. But Newman said pediatric medicine is anything but bleak.
“It’s actually the opposite. Children’s hospitals are happy places. There’s a lot of music and art, and I think it’s because we embrace the spirit of these children and we want to reproduce that,” he said.
Plus, nothing challenges you to defy the limits of success or push for advances in research quite like the responsibility of caring for little ones.
In his 30-plus years in pediatric medicine, Newman has seen breakthroughs in areas he never dreamed possible. When he started out, most children’s cancers were not curable. Now, he’s seeing cases with cures and 100-percent survival rates. Newman recounts some of these medical milestones and the stories of the children behind them in his new book, “Healing Children.”
“One of the great things I’ve seen is the amazing resilience of children and how they can bounce back. You never want to underestimate the power of healing in children,” he said.
Early on in his career, Newman discovered just how different it is to treat children, compared to adults — starting with their biology.
“And then you’re not only treating what’s happening right then, but you’re thinking about the progression, about the development of the child, so you’re also developing solutions and approaches for what a child can become and will become,” Newman added.
However, he said one of the most frustrating aspects of the job is how little attention, and thus funding, children’s medicine gets, compared to other medical fields.
“To me, it’s almost upside down because there are so many things, if we put our minds and our resources to it, that we could really do differently and make a bigger impact,” Newman said.
Take, for example, identifying diseases commonly found in adults, such as obesity, heart disease and mental illness. Newman said with advances in genetics and technology, physicians can identify these conditions early and prevent complications — “maybe even the diseases themselves.”
“Instead of talking about cutting funding for coverage of children or cutting research investment in children, we ought to be doing the opposite,” Newman said.
“I think [children] are our future, and if we can catch things early — whether it’s through genetics or whether it’s through diagnosing mental and behavioral health issues — the treatments are more effective, and we avoid a lot of the misery of chronic diseases that can develop.”
“Healing Children” does speak to current events, including reforms to the country’s current health care system, but Newman said that wasn’t his only intent. Really, he wrote the book to empower parents, so that if they even find themselves in a situation where they need specialized pediatric care, they’ll know the questions to ask and care to demand.
“I’m just very excited about the prospects for children’s medicine,” Newman added.
Proceeds from “Healing Children” go to the Pediatric Health Opportunity Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting pediatric research and innovation.
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