Kurt Newman was a third-year medical student when a lump in his throat turned out to be thyroid cancer, and he found himself a patient in his own medical school. It was a little awkward — as when he realized he was naked in front of a nurse who was a classmate’s girlfriend — but the environment was also familiar and reassuring.
And when he woke up in recovery next to a girl who looked about 8 years old, he was keenly aware of how silent and wary she was, peering nervously at the big people and the ominously beeping machines around her. “Here I was with two buddies boosting my spirits, while she was alone and scared,” he recalls. “The image of that girl alone, and the thought of her parents alone somewhere else, stayed with me until I was in a position to do something about it.”
That was 40 years ago. Newman went on to become a pediatric surgeon, and since 2011 he has been president and chief executive of Children’s National Health System in Washington. He’s passionate about caring for children as children, not just scaled-down versions of adults: advocating for letting parents into recovery rooms, warning well-meaning clowns that they’re actually frightening, realizing that to a preteen the prospect of a noticeable scar may be as scary as surgery itself. He’s concerned that seriously ill children are too often treated by specialists with little pediatric experience. And he worries that America’s children are competing for a limited pool of health-care funds with an ever-growing population of seniors and disabled adults.
In his new book, “Healing Children: A Surgeon’s Stories From the Frontiers of Pediatric Medicine,” Newman makes an emotional case for the importance of “child-specific” medical treatment. The book is composed of individual, highly detailed stories of mentors, treatments, case studies and especially the young patients themselves, for whose courage and resilience he has boundless admiration.
“I’ve extracted a toy soldier from a trachea, an inch-long fish bone from an esophagus, and a shard of an old gym bleacher from a boy’s backside,” he writes, detailing the kind of unpredictable risks that children face daily. But he also says, “Kids are genetically programmed to recover from devastating accidents and debilitating conditions. Their biological impulse is to thrive, even in the face of the most daunting conditions.”
The book concludes with a very practical appendix, titled “Eight ways to get the best medical care for your kids.” A couple of examples: Find out what child-specific services are covered by your health plan. Know where the nearest pediatric specialty hospital is and how to get there. Don’t wait for an emergency: The day your child needs care is not the best day to start looking.
Newman will discuss his book Monday at 7 p.m. at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington.