About Edward Bell
Meet Edward Bell, MD
When Edward Bell, MD, started the Tiniest Babies Registry in 2000, he wanted to create a trustworthy reference for medical professionals, but he also wanted to give hope to parents of premature babies. Since then, Bell’s reputation as a neonatologist and caregiver to preemies and micropreemies has grown. Now, after four decades of work with tiny babies, he is a highly sought-after expert. Bell has won many prestigious awards, including the Humanism in Medicine Award from the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Maureen Andrew Mentor Award from the Society for Pediatric Research, and the Daryl and Nancy Granner Distinguished Mentor Award from the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in recognition for training those who work with him at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital and elsewhere to be future caregivers for some of the most vulnerable patients.
You have spent 40 years taking care of the most fragile babies and working with their families. What have you learned?
It’s an important question because our patients are also our teachers; we learn so much from them. I remember very well a conversation I had 30 years ago with a patient’s mother. At that time, we had visiting hours for parents; that was just the way it was. Parents were not welcome during rounds and at certain other times. But this mother told me, “These are our children, so why can’t we have unrestricted time with them?” She changed my way of thinking. Now we all take it for granted that families are with us all the time, and we never ask them to leave their children.
And the babies? What have they taught you?
I’ve learned many things from the tiny babies I have worked with, but it’s the lessons you learn from the babies you couldn’t save that stick with you the longest. These lessons aren’t always crystal clear, but they drive you to learn more and do better the next time. From the babies who do survive, I’ve always been inspired by how incredibly resilient they are, and how they bounce back from things that adults can’t bounce back from. Over time, you learn that if you can buy them time, they can usually recover.
What fascinates you about neonatology?
Neonatology represents a unique opportunity to be there in the first minutes of life and to have a positive impact that can produce benefits for a lifetime. It’s incredibly rewarding to be the person who knows what to do and how to turn things around for a baby who is born too early or critically ill, but it requires a unique set of skills. You need to be good with your hands and good with your heart. You need excellent technical skills and compassion. You must be able to deal with ethical dilemmas. The neonatologist deals not with just one organ system but all organ systems. The need for this combination of skills and the incredible team environment in which a neonatologist works have always appealed to me.
Some people say, “But you can’t talk to your patients, and they can’t talk to you,” which is true; but we develop relationships with the parents as well as the babies. And I often get to see my patients when they come back for visits, which is quite nice.
When you work with young doctors, what do you hope to impart to them?
I tell students and trainees what excites me about neonatology, and with some people you can tell right away that the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit unlocks a similar excitement in them that they may not have previously recognized. Sometimes their eyes get bigger and their hearts beat faster, not because they are afraid but because they can’t wait to get to work in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
But neonatology is not for everyone, and some find the intensity and pace too much. In the end, I just want all my students to find a career that excites them and brings them as much joy and satisfaction as my career has brought me.
What are the stubborn obstacles that remain to saving premature infants?
The biggest obstacle is figuring out how to prevent premature births in the first place. That is the holy grail in saving premature babies. But there are so many factors that go into premature birth that it will take major advances in medicine to make this happen. There are many people at this university and others around the world trying to solve the problem of premature birth. While it had seemed we were making progress in recent years, with the rate of premature births finally falling in the U.S. from 2007 to 2015 after rising for many years, the prematurity rate has again begun to rise since 2016. There are various causes of premature birth and a lot about premature labor that we don’t understand. I think nature puts puzzles there for us to solve, and I’m sure we will keep seeking answers.
Training and Education
American Board of Pediatrics
American Board of Pediatrics (Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine)
National Board of Medical Examiners
MD, Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York
BA, Mathematics, Washington and Jefferson College, Washington, Pa.
Pediatrics, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, New York
Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine, Women and Infants Hospital of Rhode Island, Providence, R.I.
Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine, McMaster University Medical Centre, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada