Philip Sunshine gently cradles 1-month-old Nicholas Sims and listens to his heart through a stethoscope face no bigger than a quarter. Nicholas and his twin brother, Matthew, have been in the neonatal care unit at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford since July 1, when they were born almost two months prematurely. But Dr. Sunshine, who celebrated his 80th birthday in June, has been in the unit for more than 50 years – helping save the lives of 30,000 sick and preterm newborns.
A pioneer of modern-day neonatology, Sunshine came to Stanford during his second year of medical residency in 1957, when the med school was still located in San Francisco. At the time, “neonatology” wasn’t even a medical term.
Sunshine played a role in many firsts in preemie care, including first using a ventilator on a newborn, and first feeding a premature infant through an intravenous tube. He has been honored with dozens of prestigious awards and even has an endowed professorship named for him at Stanford University. Although he’s trimmed his work schedule down to 30 hours per week – Sunshine says he has no plans to retire.
I still really enjoy my work. And my wife, Beth, hates to travel. She’d rather sit through a root canal than travel. So, I figured that if I wasn’t going to travel in my retirement, I may as well keep coming here.
I don’t work in the neonatal intensive care unit anymore, though. I stopped doing that at age 72 because my wife wanted me to stop taking night calls. There’s an emergency a minute up there. Now I mainly work in the step-down nursery, where they bring the premature babies who are doing better but not quite ready to go home yet.
Parents like to see old doctors. When they see me, they say “I bet you’ve seen it all.” I say, “Yeah, but I just don’t remember any of it!”
One of the first Stanford doctors I worked under, Louis Gluck, was really interested in newborns and turned all the residents on to it too. I started spending as much time as I could in the nursery.
People had been taking care of babies for years, but there wasn’t much research on what to do with premature babies. The thinking was just put them in a sterile room where no one but doctors in gowns and masks can visit them, and those that make it make it, and those that don’t…
That always seemed strange to me. It seemed like preterm babies might benefit from being held by their parents. So in the 1960s, we did some studies where we let parents into the nursery, and the babies didn’t get infected. The studies showed it was safe and even helped the babies. Today, the nursery is very family oriented, we’ve got parents and siblings and everyone in there.
Another huge change is that, before 1968, health insurance wouldn’t cover sick newborns. Health care wasn’t as expensive as it is today, but it was still a huge burden for families. It would cost them $15 to $20 a day to keep their babies in the hospital.
We were very lucky at Stanford, though, because the chair of pediatrics got a grant from the National Institute of Health to set up a premature infant research center. If preterm babies met a certain set of criteria, they could get free care here.
We didn’t know what we were doing when we first started. Everyone thought that a newborn would never make it if you put him on a ventilator, but some of the doctors at Stanford really thought it would work, so they waited until some of the higher ups were out of town and tried it. And the baby survived!
Then we started getting more and more aggressive about it. We started saving smaller and smaller babies. We saved a baby that was born at 28 weeks, then 27. Now it’s down to 24. But we’re always asking whether it’s the right thing to do, and whether these very premature babies will have too many disabilities to make it in life. But, when I first started seeing patients, preemie survival rate was less than 50 percent. Now it’s well over 90 percent.
I’ve worked with a lot of brilliant doctors over the years. And the doctors I’ve trained – it turns out they’re a lot smarter than me. I trained Bill Benitz (chief of neonatology at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, and also the Philip Sunshine endowed professor of neonatology at Stanford’s School of Medicine).
I remember when he first came to Stanford, my wife and I took him out to dinner, and afterward, my wife said to me, “You better be nice to him because someday he’s going to be your boss.” Today, he is. He took over for me in 1989.
When I’m not working, I try to keep active. I cycle and play tennis whenever I can, and my wife and I love movies. We see a couple a week. Plus, I’m a big fan of the 49ers and the Giants. I have five kids and six grandkids, and most of them live in California, so it’s fun when we get to see each other.
I still love my work, and the doctors and nurses in neonatology are like a big, happy family. The parents notice it, and the other hospital departments are envious of it. I hope to keep working as long as I can – or until my boss kicks me out!