February 27, 2009

Price steep for ignoring neonatal woes: Stahlman

Featured Image

Mildred Stahlman, M.D., foreground, at this week’s lecture with some of the Stahlman professors, from left, Larry Churchill, Ph.D., David Bader, Ph.D., Louis Muglia, M.D., Ph.D., Michael Aschner, Ph.D., and Gary Gerstle, Ph.D. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Price steep for ignoring neonatal woes: Stahlman

Sporting a daffodil from the pocket of her lab coat, pioneering Vanderbilt neonatologist Mildred Stahlman, M.D., expressed some moral outrage Monday during a lecture to medical students.

“Every minute, a baby is born without health insurance,” she said. “Every four minutes in America, a baby is born to a mother who had late or no prenatal care. Every day, 27 American children die in poverty.”

Noting that it can cost $200,000 to rescue a baby born three months prematurely,

Stahlman asked, “Wouldn't it be better to spend those $200,000 on housing, adequate nutrition and good prenatal care?”

She answered her question with what she called her two axioms about newborn infants:

“One, the cheapest baby is a dead baby; and two, babies don't vote.
“Somehow I think those two facts are connected,” she said.

Stahlman, who joined the Vanderbilt faculty in 1951 and who established the Division of Neonatology, had entitled her lecture “The effect of poverty and social ills on pregnancy outcome.”

She described how poor outcomes related to poverty, including premature delivery, disproportionately impact African-Americans, how these outcomes can resonate for a lifetime, and how they can negatively impact all of society.

Children born into poverty are at high risk of perpetuating their own poverty, having babies too early, dropping out of school, becoming homeless and addicted to drugs, engaging in criminal and violent activities and ending up in jail.

“The most dangerous place for children to grow up in America,” Stahlman concluded, “is the intersection of poverty and race.”

Unless policies that stress arrest and incarceration over education and public health are reversed, she warned, “we as a nation will fall economically, technologically, morally and spiritually to the same low levels which we now rank internationally in areas representing child care and advocacy.”

At the conclusion of her lecture, Stahlman offered, “I can take questions. Does anybody want to argue?”

One brave medical student asked what advice she had for doctors in training.

Stahlman answered: “What I would hope that I could convince you of is that if you are ever going to practice medicine, the first thing you have to learn is charity.

“What is charity? Charity is unqualified love.”