“I’m their grandmother,” says Dr. Rosita Pildes, moving among the 65 premature and sick babies whose precarious lives she watches over in Chicago’s Cook County Hospital. She picks up one infant, rubs his back and murmurs, “Are you breathing all right, sweetie?” (Dr. Pildes says she talks to the babies “instinctively—the residents think I’m a little loony.”)
She watches a young mother gaze down through the plastic dome of an incubator at her child, who is entwined with the tubes that are keeping it alive. “Would you like to hold your baby?” Pildes asks. The mother cradles the infant for the first time, gingerly avoiding its life-support systems.
In another room of the intensive-care nursery, a doctor struggles to insert a tube in a day-old baby’s chest to remove air that may be pushing its heart out of position. When the baby cries, Pildes sticks a finger in his mouth, and he contentedly sucks on it while the operation continues.
Some 6,000 babies born each year at Cook County—as well as hundreds more brought in from other hospitals—make up Dr. Pildes’ practice. At 47, she is chairman of the hospital’s division of neonatology, the care of children from birth to 28 days.
As a medical field, it is no more than a dozen years old. Dr. Pildes became a certified neonatologist only last November by passing the first board exam ever given in the pediatric subspecialty. She has run Cook County’s nurseries for nine years. “It isn’t enough to provide fluids and feeding,” she believes. “The baby needs love, fondling and affection.” For this reason she encourages parents “to come and touch”—a radical departure from the days when sick infants were kept as isolated as possible.
The daughter of refugees from the Russian Revolution, Pildes was born in Argentina and taken to the United States when she was 11. “I remember looking up at the skyscrapers of New York and getting so dizzy,” she says. The family settled in Chicago, where her father sold clothes and household goods door to door. After early difficulties in school because her English was so poor, she went on to get her medical degree from the University of Illinois. Pildes became a hospital pediatrician with regular hours so she could care for her own small children. “I consider myself fortunate,” she says. “I did not have to make a living. That is one of the beauties of being a wife.” Her husband, Robert, is an obstetrician who often refers critically ill babies to the Cook County nursery.
As Richard, a Princeton sophomore, and Ellyn, a high school senior, grew up, Dr. Pildes devoted more time to her career. A professor of pediatrics at the University of Illinois, she has become such an authority on infant care that a symposium she conducted last winter drew more than 300 doctors and nurses.
Neonatology has developed rapidly in recent years, and Dr. Pildes stresses the need to utilize all the scientific innovations. “We have so much available today to help the obstetrician decide what condition the baby is in,” she says. “We ought to bring better babies into the world.” But she adds a caution: “Technology does not take the place of the individual at the bedside. It does not replace the nurse or doctor who has the experience to look at a baby and know what is wrong.”