Tuesday, February 26, 2013
It was a typical January morning in the nursery at Summerville Medical Center when the staff got word a woman in the ER might give birth at only 23 weeks.
As the nurses started gathering supplies, Dr. Ed West, a pediatrician with Palmetto Pediatrics who had just finished visiting his newest patients, decided to stick around until the staff neonatologist arrived.
Neonatal nurse Michelle Fulton, who’s worked with West for about six years, was in and out of the room readying an isolette. While she worked she heard West launch into a tale from the first years of his career, a story he recalled because of the “familiar discomfort” of dealing with an extremely premature baby.
“As he starts to tell the story, he’s visibly upset,” she said.
It was 1976 and West was doing his rounds at Roper Hospital when the nurses called for help because a baby born at 32 weeks had just died.
Back then he was one of the few doctors in Charleston with neonatology training, a field so new that hospital protocols seemed to change daily, he said.
There were no baby-sized IVs or respirators, he said. Sometimes staff would use Dixie cups to concentrate oxygen for a baby to breathe, he said.
“We just stuck it up by the baby’s face and hoped it works,” he said.
Bits and pieces of the story filtered into Fulton’s consciousness as she went about her work.
And as she listened, she started to wonder – could it be?
West related all the steps he’d taken with the tiny baby, including a femoral artery stick, something that Fulton said is something you just don’t do unless there are no other options.
As a nurse, she was fascinated. But there was something else about the story that was all too familiar. Finally, she sat down in the room to hear the full story, out of curiosity and respect for the pull this incident had on West.
Indeed, the story of this baby, who was rushed to MUSC so quickly that West barely introduced himself to the baby’s mother, had a significant impact on the way West practiced medicine.
When he attended Summerville Baptist Church the following Sunday, the preacher stopped the service and asked for prayers for a baby at MUSC, explaining she was part of the Summerville Baptist family.
In that moment, West realized that what he did at work every day affected actual people, his friends and neighbors, in the community.
There’s a dehumanizing element to medical training, especially back then when residents’ hours weren’t regulated, he said.
There are whole blocks of time from his residency in Atlanta that he doesn’t remember and weeks at a time when he didn’t see the sun because he simply went from patient to patient to patient.
The focus was “get them well, get them out of here,” he said.
Often they didn’t get well. In those days he saw cases of meningitis and other highly infectious bacterial illnesses on a daily basis.
“At some level you have to block it out of your head,” he said.
But this case woke him up, he said.
“It woke me up to realize there’s more to what I’m doing than blood and guts,” he said.
As he related the story to the nurses at Summerville Medical Center, Fulton checked off each detail in her mind.
When he mentioned Summerville Baptist, though, she decided his story couldn’t be hers. Her parents, after all, attended the Baptist church in Jedburg.
But then he said the News and Courier published an article about a year later calling the child the “Million Dollar Baby.”
When he said that, Fulton knew.
The article wasn’t called “Million Dollar Baby,” Fulton told him.
“I said, ‘That article said, “The Miracle Baby,” and that baby was me,’” she said.
Fulton was born April 28, 1976 as Peggy Michelle Sanders. The article was published in December, when her parents brought homemade ornaments to the nurses who had cared for Fulton.
The story quotes her father, Charles Sanders, saying Fulton was given a 10 percent chance of survival. He was told to keep the news from his wife.
Fulton’s mother, Kathy Sanders, is now a nurse at Trident Medical Center, but she wasn’t a nurse at the time Fulton was born and didn’t entirely know the extent of what had happened.
Not until Fulton called her mother to relate her meeting with West did Sanders know her daughter had died that day at Roper.
It was only through West’s storytelling that Fulton learned of the prayers of members of Summerville Baptist Church, where her grandparents attended and her parents attended for a time.
For Fulton and her parents, the miracle of the day is that West, one of the few doctors in Charleston at the time with his specialized training, happened to be on the floor at that moment instead of where he was supposed to be – at a staff meeting.
In fact, he said, he never got the notice about the meeting.
Had anyone else been there instead of West, Fulton said, “Who knows, I would probably not be here.”
For West, what he does at work is the same thing that hundreds of other doctors and nurses do every day.
For him, the case was a turning point in how he approached the practice of medicine.
For Fulton’s family, it was everything.