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In this issue: SUMMER 2010

Welcome letter
Big dreams for tiny babies
The thrill of discovery
A joint effort
Born too soon
The nature of nurture
Steeplechase benefits Children's Hospital
Friends and fashion



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The nature of nurture

By Jessica Ennis / June 2010

Bill Walsh, M.D.,  enjoys gardening  at home. Photo by John Russell.Bill Walsh, M.D., enjoys gardening at home. Photo by John Russell.Bill Walsh, M.D., is many things:a loving father and husband, a dedicated teacher and physician, an enthusiastic blueberry gardener and an involuntary ballroom dancer.

“He didn’t tell you about that?” asked his wife, Karen Gannon, N.N.P., sounding amused. “He totally hates it, but he takes ballroom dancing classes with me. We’ve been doing it for several years, but he has two left feet and I’m convinced he’s tone deaf.”

His ballroom dancing activities are certainly not among Walsh’s crowning achievements, but demonstrate his character – he has a deep love for his family (otherwise, his wife would never been able to drag him to class) and a healthy sense of humor (his wife was serious; he really can’t dance).

“Talk about a labor of love,” Walsh said, trying not to groan. “I got her lessons several years ago – I thought there would be four of them…that was a big mistake!”

What Walsh, a neonatologist, is best known for at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt is being the chief of Nurseries, a significant role he’s held since joining Vanderbilt in 1992.

When he came to Vanderbilt from Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio where he was director of Clinical Neonatology, there were only 42 Neonatal Intensive Care Unit beds at Vanderbilt University Hospital. When the freestanding Children’s Hospital was built in 2004, 36 more beds were added under Walsh’s purview.

Walsh found a career in neonatology almost by accident.

“I didn’t come from a medical family,” Walsh said. “My dad was a World War II veteran. It never occurred to me to be a doctor. Doctor visits were scary. I planned on being a pilot, I wanted to fly.”

Walsh’s parents were unable to afford college, so when Walsh picked up an Air Force recruiting brochure promoting a free college education he decided he would sign on.

“I qualified for the Air Force Academy even though I wasn’t any good in high school,” he said. “I was good at taking tests. I could play basketball, run and take tests.”

He went off to Colorado Springs, Colo., and began to fly frequently.

“I hated it,” Walsh said. “I wanted to be a pilot until I actually did it. It was like a roller coaster ride that was only fun at first. I just didn’t see myself doing that forever.”

Since Walsh enjoyed his science courses, he decided to change his major from civil engineering to life sciences. Instead of becoming a pilot, he decided he would become a physician, he said, “for the classic reason to ‘help others’” that draws many to the healing arts. It was very difficult to get into medical school while in the Air Force. Out of a class of 750, 40 were accepted by medical schools and only 20 were permitted by the Air Force.

During his senior year at the Academy Walsh secretly eloped with his wife, Karen Gannon. The pair had been high school sweethearts, but students in the Air Force Academy were not allowed to marry.

“We didn’t tell anyone,” Walsh said.

Walsh left Colorado in 1972 to pursue a medical degree from the University of Texas in San Antonio. They both settled into school at the University of Texas, where Walsh learned what it meant to be a doctor while Gannon earned a degree in nursing.

“I enjoyed the children,” Walsh recalls of his early clinical rotations in medical school. “They were not responsible for their own illness. I fell in love with taking care of sick kids.”

Still owing 11 years to the Air Force, Walsh completed an internship and residency in pediatrics and a fellowship in neonatology at Wilford Hall Medical Center, located near the university.

While in Texas, Walsh’s family began to grow – four of six children were adopted over four years. He and Gannon adopted twin girls, Pauline and Virginia, in 1976. Hope was next in 1979, and then Matthew came along in 1980.

“When we were younger, we would go on rounds during Saturday mornings,” recalled his daughter Virginia Gannon Walsh, now an assistant district attorney in Anderson Co., Tenn. “He would get us snacks from the vending machine and set us up with cartoons in the doctors’ lounge. It was a lot of fun.”

In 1981, he accepted a position as chief of Newborn Medicine and assistant professor of Pediatrics at Malcolm Grow Medical Center at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

In 1984, the family moved to Mississippi where Walsh headed up the NICU and Newborn Nursery at Kessler Air Force Base. They remained there until 1989. In the meantime, Andrew joined the family in 1985.

“The agency from San Antonio called and asked if we would consider adopting another,” Walsh recalls. “He was a 3-pound, 32-week baby that was doing pretty well. I had my former colleagues check him out, and then the Air Force packed him up and flew him to Kessler, where he was under my care several days before going home.”

Just a year later, Hope, who was born with many medical problems, died at age 7.

“She was a sweetheart and we were lucky to have her,” Walsh said.

Brian was the final child adopted by Walsh and Gannon in 1988.

Left: Bill Walsh, M.D., looks over the charts of an ECMO patient with pediatric surgeon Thomas Rauth, M.D., in the NICU at Children’s Hospital.  Right: Walsh makes his rounds on a patient in the ECMO unit in the NICU. Photos by John Russell.Left: Bill Walsh, M.D., looks over the charts of an ECMO patient with pediatric surgeon Thomas Rauth, M.D., in the NICU at Children’s Hospital. Right: Walsh makes his rounds on a patient in the ECMO unit in the NICU. Photos by John Russell.In 1992, Walsh came to Vanderbilt University Medical Center as the chief of nurseries and Gannon began working as a neonatal nurse practitioner in the NICU. Although they work in the same unit, they have made every effort to keep their personal lives separate from their professional lives.

“A lot of people don’t realize we are married,” Gannon said.

Part of Walsh’s responsibilities as chief of nurseries includes teaching doctors-in-training, nurses and members of the medical team. It requires him to keep abreast of all the new developments in neonatology.

Over the years, he’s amassed quite a collection of teaching awards from his faculty positions, including winning Vanderbilt’s Amos Christie Teaching Award three times.

“I love teaching. As I learn about stuff I love to share it,” Walsh said. “Most of my work is with residents and fellows learning to be neonatologists. But I also do a lot of nursing education; I teach 20 hours a year in nursing classes. And I’m teaching respiratory therapists and ECMO therapists.”

The beneficiaries of his teaching are the tiny babies under his care.

“I love taking care of babies and I get very attached,” Walsh said. “Luckily our outcomes are so good. Ninety-five percent of babies will survive. It’s heartbreaking when our babies die or live with multiple problems.”

One of his favorite things about his job is visiting NICU graduates in the follow-up clinic.

“I get to hug them and get pictures,” Walsh said.

When it’s time to go home, Walsh is able to leave work at the hospital and enjoy his time off.

“He’s really good at relaxing,” Gannon said.

Bill Walsh, M.D., and his wife Karen Gannon, N.N.P., walk with their dog, Briley, on their property.  Photo by John Russell.Bill Walsh, M.D., and his wife Karen Gannon, N.N.P., walk with their dog, Briley, on their property. Photo by John Russell.The family lives seven miles northwest of Vanderbilt. Lucky and Briley, the two family dogs, lazily amble up the long gravel driveway that leads to a beautiful log home hidden from view from the road and situated on 20 acres of scenic land. Sparkles, Gannon’s 13-year-old horse, has a stable and pasture just steps from the house.

“It looks like Gatlinburg, doesn’t it,” Walsh said.

Walsh is an avid flower gardener and also cares for 200 blueberry plants that make up his blueberry patch. He also enjoys golfing with his son, Andrew. He recently completed the Country Music Half Marathon, which he said he trained for by running up and down his driveway.

Gannon’s parents live in a log cabin on the premises, and their son, Brian, has an apartment out back. A few years ago, Brian was diagnosed with juvenile onset of Huntington’s Disease, a progressive neurogenetic disorder affecting muscle coordination and cognitive function.

Walsh says that although his family has encountered their share of heartbreak – the loss of a young child and the serious illness of another – the bond he shares with his wife and children grows stronger every day.

“We’ve gotten through it by sticking together and loving each other,” Walsh said.







Send the editor your thoughts about this story, or share ideas for other stories.


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Steeplechase benefits Children's Hospital By Jessica Ennis

The nature of nurture By Jessica Ennis