“I had no idea what I was doing in college,” admits Dr. F. Sessions Cole. “I took a smattering of things, hoping to find some direction. I was a history major and I’d taken the law boards, but I was still unsure.” One day he went fishing with his father, who fixed TVs for a living. “He asked me what I was going to do when I got out of school, and I was completely taken aback—he’d never asked before,” Cole recalls. “I blurted out, ‘Maybe I’ll be a doctor,’ and he said, ‘I think that’s a good idea.’”
Today, as chief medical officer and director of newborn medicine at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Cole is one of the most influential and respected neonatologists in the country. He’s also living proof that doctors can be sensitive and compassionate without compromising their effectiveness and authority.
“Many of the infants I treat are seriously ill, and I’ve managed to hang on to my empathy primarily through the strength and resilience of their families,” says Cole, a professor of pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine. “Whenever a sick child gets better, that gives me strength to renew my commitment to the families whose kids aren’t doing so well.”
A graduate of Yale University Medical School, Cole came to Children’s Hospital in 1986. The newborn intensive-care unit (NICU) he heads is not only one of the busiest and best in the nation, but one of the most innovative. Children’s Hospital is the largest center for infant lung transplantation in the world, and Cole has revolutionized the role parents play in the health and recovery of their newborns. His model for family-centered care, a movement that emphasizes the importance of parental involvement, has become a benchmark for NICUs everywhere. “We have lots of technology here, and an extraordinary group of nurses who are committed to the best possible outcome for these kids,” Cole says. “But the power of a family’s hope is not to be underestimated. It has as much impact on the outcome as all the other resources combined.”
Cole’s primary research efforts focus on severe respiratory distress in infants. “When it’s caused by prematurity, we can take care of it by technological means, keeping the baby alive until the lungs mature,” he explains. “But we’ve found that 20 to 40 percent of infants with immature lungs have problems associated with inheritance: a lack of a pulmonary surfactant produced by the lungs that keeps them inflated during exhalation.” His groundbreaking research has extended and initiated further research toward understanding the inherited causes of newborn respiratory disease.
The medical establishment tends to be conservative, but Cole is not afraid to take a stand on controversial issues. He’s outspoken about the need to reduce premature births, including those hastened by elective C-sections and inductions. “The parents’ convenience is not the only issue here—any baby delivered more than one week before its due date is at risk for a substantial number of health problems,” he says. He also is opposed to multiple embryo implants, a practice common among infertility specialists who want to increase the chances of conception. “Multiple births are almost all premature, and substantially raise the risk of health problems in both mother and children,” he says. “Premature babies have more problems at birth, and studies show they also have problems with learning and development later on. The goal should not be to conceive at all costs, but to bring home a healthy baby.”