John Heaton 2013 Anesthesiologist for Doctor feature in Voila! 2013Dr. John Heaton (BS ’81)

23 years in practice | Anesthsiology, Patient Safety and Quality | Children’s Hospital, New Orleans

“Recently, I had the opportunity to help care for the grandkid of one of my Nicholls professors. To see my career come full circle was very gratifying.”

Early in my postgraduate training, I had a patient who was born with a congenital diaphragmatic hernia — a hole in the diaphragm that allows the abdominal organs to move into the chest. The condition causes one lung to be undeveloped, the other lung to be underdeveloped and all sorts of pulmonary and cardiovascular problems. This usually fatal illness required us to put the newborn on a ventilator and on ECMO, an artificial heart and lung machine, for about 10 days. It was a battle just to keep her alive, but she finally stabilized, we were able to get her off the machines, and it appeared that she was doing well.

Days later, we did a diagnostic procedure, and the baby had a complication that she did not survive. I learned a lot that day, but the thing that sticks with me the most is the reaction of this 6-week-old baby’s parents when I told them that we had lost her. It’s never nice to deliver that kind of news, but despite their own grief, they were actually very supportive of me. I will never forget their compassion and understanding, despite the terrible blow they had received.

Even though the complication was totally unforeseen, it’s human nature that I started to think that maybe I should have done more to investigate, or maybe if I had thought the procedure through a couple of steps more, I would have approached it differently. If you don’t have the capacity to question and second-guess yourself, you probably shouldn’t be in this field.

That was 27 years ago, and that case and the events around it have shaped the way I practice medicine and how I now manage departments as an associate medical director. Most anesthesiologists want nothing to do with a sick baby, but that’s our specialty. Babies and little kids in general are resilient and bounce back quickly, but they can go into a tailspin just as fast. Safety and quality always come first. There’s a snake under every bush. You can never, ever, ever get complacent. I try to live and teach these messages every day.

— Written by Stephanie Verdin, publications coordinator

This article originally appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Voila! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.