"Dr. West, would you come over here? This baby just died.” On that day, April 28, 1976, a young pediatrician, Edward H. West, was checking on one of his own patients in a newborn nursery at a private hospital in downtown Charleston, S.C. Another infant, born prematurely during the night, had been treated as was normal in those days—set up with oxygen coming through a little perforated Dixie cup just to see what would happen. As was normal, sometimes the baby died, as this one apparently had.
When the nurse called him over, West went to work as he had been trained: Don’t assume death, but “walk into resuscitations and just do them … no interaction with the child, the mother’s sedated or not present.” He began mouth-to-mouth, which for a baby is mouth-to-mouth-and-nose because the baby’s face is so small. With his four fingers under the baby’s spine, he began chest compressions with his thumb. Soon the heart rate returned, which meant he could stop the compressions and get in an umbilical catheter to get fluids into the baby. West recalls, “You could tell it worked. The kid peed.”
Before he could get the baby across the street to the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) hospital for specialized care, a group of pediatricians came in. One asked West, “Why weren’t you at the meeting today?” West recalls: “That was the first time it struck me—odd, that I didn’t know about the meeting.” Also odd: Of all the pediatricians who would have been available that day if they hadn’t been at the meeting, West was the only one trained to resuscitate a premature baby. Had he received the memo about a general staff meeting as he always had, the baby would have died.
West remembers passing the mother’s room and saying something like, “I’m Dr. West and you have a very sick baby.” But, following his training, he didn’t stop to explain what had happened. He never bothered to learn the mother’s or baby’s name. He couldn’t even remember if the baby was a boy or girl. He just got the baby across the street, pushing an incubator that looked like a torpedo, and handed over the baby to the critical care team. He went back to his office and did normal work.
The next Sunday, West was in church when his pastor stopped the service to pray for a family with a sick baby at the MUSC. West remembers thinking, That’s the baby I was taking care of. Odd, that it would be connected to a family in my church. He says it’s easy to lose sight of the humanity of his patients, but that the pastor’s prayer and the connection of that baby to his church made him begin thinking of his patients as little people. About a year later, the Charleston (S.C.) News and Courier ran an article about a baby who survived after months of care at MUSC. That was the baby West had saved, and he started thinking more about how he practiced medicine.
But he continued practicing as he had been trained, with an emphasis on technical excellence, and not expending time on patients. Then, about 10 years ago, after years as a Bible teacher in his church, he realized he “was missing something. I realized it was compassion.” He began to pray for compassion, and was surprised sometimes to find himself having an “obnoxious tearing up. … Tears would come down my cheeks. It took awhile to realize, oh, this must be what it is.”
Then on Jan. 28, 2013, nurses in the newborn nursery at Summerville Medical Center, about 20 miles northwest of Charleston, were anticipating the birth of a 23-week premature baby. “I know the feeling the nurses in that room must have felt,” West said. “It’s a feeling of something’s about to happen, and I have to perform, and I have to do it right.” The hospital’s neonatologist was not on duty, so West offered to stay at the hospital until the neonatologist returned or the anticipated emergency was over.
As they waited, West began to tell a nurse about his experience in 1976, and another nurse became interested in the conversation. She asked if he remembered the baby’s name or the name of the newspaper article. He said he didn’t know the baby’s name and thought the article was titled something like “The Million Dollar Baby,” a reference to the huge hospital bill.
The nurse corrected him: The title was “The Miracle Baby,” she said, adding that she knew the name of the baby: Peggy Michelle Sanders, daughter of Charles and Kathy Sanders. How did she know? She was that baby. Known now by her married name, Michelle Fulton, the 36-year-old neonatal nurse and mother of two has worked with West for the past five years, taking care of newborns—and yet neither one knew their prior connection.
As they continued waiting for the 23-week preemie to arrive, West thought back to the role baby Michelle played in starting to show him his need for compassion. He now knew that he should have talked with the mother of the baby he’d brought back to life: “It’s outrageous that I didn’t go back and talk to her. It didn’t occur to me. … I could have done her some good that day, that month. I could have done her some good in three months, because she was still down there. It never even crossed my mind to do anything good for her.”
Charles and Kathy Sanders, and their daughter Michelle Fulton, consider it a miracle that West was in the newborn nursery that day and not at the hospital staff meeting. Until the reunion this year, Fulton’s parents didn’t know their baby had stopped breathing before being brought back to life by a doctor who happened to be where he wasn’t supposed to be. They see West as a hero, but he says he was a jerk who now realizes “I’ve been forgiven a lot that I didn’t even understand about or know about. I hadn’t appreciated the extent to which I had been forgiven.”
West is grateful for “the infusion of compassion that I’ve received in my life before it was too late.” He now sees how, back in 1976, the doctor saved the baby, and the baby began the process of saving the doctor, just the way God had it planned.
—Dick Peterson is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute’s mid-career course