John and Yvonne Driscoll’s license plates read “MD MR” and “MD MRS,” though Yvonne rues, “I wanted MD MOM and MD DAD, but those plates were already taken.” They would surely be appropriate. The Driscolls have six children of their own and currently are responsible for 33 infants in the neonatal intensive care unit of Manhattan’s Presbyterian Hospital.
Since 1971, when John, 44, became director of the unit, the survival rate of its premature patients born weighing less than 2.2 pounds has increased from 13 to 77 percent. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be as good as Divine Providence,” says Driscoll, who oversees a nursery of incubators connected to heart and respiratory monitors. But even babies weighing barely one pound now have a 50 percent chance of survival; 10 years ago almost no babies that size lived.
Yvonne, 45, a developmental pediatrician, joined the neonatal unit last year to do follow-up tests on discharged preemies. Only 15 percent of the infants with birth weights under two pounds now suffer neurological abnormalities, she notes, and not all of those cases are severe; 20 years ago 60 to 80 percent of the survivors were handicapped. “Yvonne’s work completes the spectrum,” says John. “We have to make sure that the quality of life of most of the children who come out of this unit is normal in order to justify the unit’s existence.”
More telling than any statistic is the hospital’s annual neonatal reunion, this year attended by 150 healthy children and their families. Indeed, the advances at Presbyterian and other such U.S. centers aren’t limited to new medicines and machines. “Initially, we have to help families with their very natural fears that their babies are little and sick and totally dependent on nurses,” feels John. “Parents must realize the nurses become surrogate mothers for a short time.” Driscoll’s staff sends snapshots of the babies to mothers recuperating elsewhere. Parents and grandparents also can visit the IC unit round the clock and bring small siblings on weekends. All are encouraged to touch and talk to the infants—if necessary through portholes in the Isolette incubators.
With dying babies, John says, “We think the child should die in its mother’s arms, if the family is ready for that.” Siblings are also brought in for a final goodbye. “Families who experience death tell us this is very important,” he observes. Adds nurse Donna Handelsman, “It is truly inspiring to see Dr. Driscoll with a family whose baby is dying in their arms. It is beautiful, if you can call anything about a tragedy like that beautiful.”
For John and Yvonne, tending their own children, ages 5 to 16, is as taxing and rewarding as their work. “At times I have to be a loving dictator,” Yvonne jokes of her demerit system. There is a part-time housekeeper at their 15-room home in Oradell, N.J., but John does his share of the cooking and dishes. Time is made for family outings, Little League (John is a coach) and church activities.
When John and Yvonne met as interns at the University Health Center of Pittsburgh, he asked, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in medicine?”—setting their relationship off to a slow start. They married in 1964 planning to go into practice together, but John, born in Brooklyn and graduated from Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., went into neonatal medicine, an in-hospital specialty. Yvonne, born in Rochester, Pa. to a doctor and a nurse, was head of student government at Trinity College (her husband was president of his class at Hamilton College). She was voted most likely to succeed at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, but her career came second while their children were growing. “She has sacrificed an awful lot professionally on my behalf, and I would love to allow her to tip the scale,” he vows. That may mean a private practice for Yvonne someday. Among those who think they’ve done quite well already is their pastor. “I’ll never get to heaven because of the Driscolls,” smiles the Rev. John Smith of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Oradell. “They ruin the curve for the rest of us.”