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'Healing Children': A Surgeon's Take On What Kids Need

For parents, the thought of a child being sick or hurt can be a heart-stopper. Fortunately, for those who do confront such realities, there are doctors like Kurt Newman.

Newman is president and CEO of Children's National Health System, known as Children's National, in Washington, D.C. He started there as a surgeon more than 30 years ago.

In his memoir, Healing Children: A Surgeon's Stories From The Frontiers Of Pediatric Medicine, he argues that children are not just smaller, softer adults, and that the differences matter for their treatment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

Medically speaking, how are children distinct from adults?

It starts with size. In some cases, you need special equipment, or you might need special medications that work differently on children. Their biology is different. They're more resilient. They bounce back. They heal better.

And then there's a whole idea about development — for example, the developing brain. You have to think about how that brain is now, and how it's going to develop, and what should we do now so that we maximize the potential for that child.

When you think about a child, they need protection. They're not fully formed or fully mature. Their organs are not what they're going to be. But at the same time, that immaturity allows so much bounce back and so much healing and so much ability. So you have to take both those things into mind as you take care of a child.

What changes do you want to see in health care for children?

Over half of the children we take care of are on Medicaid. And as I look at the debates in Congress and in Washington, I worry because I'm not sure that children are enough of a national priority for us.

I would really prioritize how we care for children. I'd make sure that we're training more doctors [and] more nurses that are specialized in pediatric care. I'd do more research into the causes of some of the diseases that we take care of, to try to prevent them or diagnose them early. I'd put a lot more into mental and behavioral health. Over 20 percent of the kids have some sort of mental health or behavioral health issues. And I'd probably build a few more children's hospitals.

Before becoming president and CEO of Children's National, Newman was a surgeon at the hospital.
/ Meredith Rizzo/NPR
Meredith Rizzo/NPR
Before becoming president and CEO of Children's National, Newman was a surgeon at the hospital.

At a children's hospital, you know you're going to get care that's focused exclusively on children, and there's a priceless value to that. If your child is undergoing anesthesia, you want to make sure that the person putting your child to sleep is trained in pediatrics. Or if you go to an emergency department — our emergency department sees 150 kids a day. So why go to an emergency department where they may only see five or 10 kids a day? They may not even have the equipment that's needed.

I want to empower parents with this book to understand what I know — the special value of children's hospitals and pediatric specialists.

Over the years, there must be patients you haven't been able to help.

That's part of the inspiration of the job, to think about the children we couldn't do enough for. In surgery, I would try and create a professional distance, but there's one I think about all the time.

His name was Casey. We called him "the Mayor." He had this infectious gregariousness. He was always more interested in how the other patients were doing, or how I was doing. I had to operate on him a number of times. He had a bone tumor that was discovered [when] he was playing soccer.

He kept wanting to get the next surgery or get the next chemotherapy, because he had this sense that there was something more out there. I think in a way, he wanted that for other kids.

We want to do more for kids, and there are so many exciting discoveries. The frontier of pediatric medicine is so alive with new ideas and innovation. That's what drives us — kids like Casey — so we can do more.

Weekend Edition editor Jordana Hochman contributed to this story.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.