William Walsh, M.D., has always “put the baby in the middle” — sometimes literally, but most often figuratively.
“Put the baby in the middle” is one of many Walsh-created idioms, dubbed “Walshisms” by people who know him. That saying in particular, perhaps, best defines the beloved neonatologist’s career focus.
“He told me and preached to me ‘if you put the baby in the middle, you can take care of all the rest of that after,’ whether it’s an insurance issue, or a form. ‘Do what’s best and you’ll come out OK,’” said Marlee Crankshaw, R.N., DNP, CNML, director Neonatal Services and Walsh’s longtime friend and colleague. “He has always been so caring and patient with our families. He is not just a wonderful physician, but also a wonderful man.”
In a career spanning over four decades, with 25 of those years as chief of Nurseries at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) and Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, Walsh has focused on caring for some of the hospital’s tiniest and sickest patients.
Along the way, he has impacted policy, trained future providers and championed innovative treatments. He’s published more than five-dozen articles, given more than 100 invited lectures, taken care of thousands of babies and mentored too many people to count.
On May 1, he stepped down as chief of Nurseries, passing the baton to Melinda Markham, M.D., who assumed the role of medical director of Neonatal Intensive Care Units at Vanderbilt.
Walsh isn’t officially using the word “retirement” yet.
“I wanted to cut back while I was still at the top of my game, making sure I was happy about cutting back and everyone else was sad — instead of vice versa. I have lots of work to do taking care of babies without running the whole nursery — teaching, finishing research, mentoring and writing papers. I also have the opportunity to pass the baton of medical director of the NICU to a very capable woman, Dr. Melinda Markham, who will do nothing but further improve the care provided to our infants,” Walsh said. “It has been an amazing honor, privilege and opportunity to serve as the chief of Nurseries for the past 25 years.”
More than 100 people attended a celebration event June 26 at Children’s Hospital to honor Walsh’s 25 years of service. In addition to highlights of his work at the event, Walsh became the first recipient of newly created annual award in his honor, the William F. Walsh Excellence in Clinical Education Award.
“He’s been a mentor to me in many ways since I came here 10 years ago,” Markham said. “Without question, he is the most gifted neonatologist I have ever known. He’s book smart and hands-on smart. He is the consummate academic neonatologist, as he is an exceptional clinician, teacher, researcher and administrator. He’s done it all and done it well.
“I asked him to attend my delivery, and my daughter needed him. If she needed a neonatologist in the room, it had to be Dr. Walsh.”
Walsh will continue to mentor and teach future clinicians at Vanderbilt.
“His approachability, availability, desire to help others, interpersonal skills, and incredible skills at mentoring are traits that he has used for decades to impact the professional lives of all levels of learners,” said Amy Fleming, M.D., associate dean for Medical Student Affairs at Vanderbilt University’s School of Medicine. “His presence for the students assigned to work with him, for his peer faculty coaches and for me have been truly invaluable. I hope to emulate the skills that he has so ably modeled for me.”
Walsh didn’t plan to be a doctor, and initially believed he would be a pilot. He signed up for the U.S. Air Force, which offered a free college education, and attended the Air Force Academy. He realized flying wasn’t for him, and changed his major to life sciences.
While at the Air Force Academy, he secretly eloped with his high school sweetheart, Karen Gannon, because the Academy didn’t allow students to marry.
Walsh went to medical school at the University of Texas in San Antonio, where Gannon also earned a degree in nursing. During his service in the Air Force, he completed his residency and internship in pediatrics and a fellowship in neonatology at Wilford Hall Medical Center, an Air Force treatment facility.
In 1976, he and Gannon began their family, adopting the first two of their six children, premature twin girls Pauline and Virginia. From then until 1988, they adopted four more, Hope, Matthew, Andrew and Brian.
As their family grew, they moved to Maryland, where Walsh became chief Newborn Medicine and assistant professor of Pediatrics at Malcolm Grow Medical Center at Andrews Air Force Base. A few years later, they moved to Mississippi, where he took over as head of NICU and Newborn Nursery at Kessler Air Force Base. Subsequently, he returned to Wilford.
Walsh arrived at Vanderbilt in 1992 from Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where he was director of Clinical Neonatology. At the time, Vanderbilt’s NICU had 42 beds — a number that has more than doubled to the current 96 beds under his guidance.
At Vanderbilt, Walsh’s love for children and babies is evident to all who know him.
“Dr. Walsh is the epitome of a master clinician, a true “baby whisperer,” said Susan Guttentag, M.D., Julia Carell Stadler Professor and chief of the Mildred Stahlman Division of Neonatology.
“But even more so, he has been a kind guiding hand across the many groups of providers, administrators, educators and learners that together make up the NICUs that we serve in Nashville, Clarksville, Columbia and Jackson. He has been a tireless advocate for mothers and their babies across the state of Tennessee through his work on Newborn Screening, Infant Mortality Review, and the Perinatal Advisory Committee. I think that it is safe to say that there is no one person able to replace everything that he does on a daily basis.”
His wife, Karen, a neonatal nurse practitioner, has worked alongside him all these years—despite many not knowing they were married. He understands what families are going through. The couple lost their daughter, Hope, when she was 7 due to medical complications she was born with.
“His experience of being a bereaved parent has provided him with an ability to comfort parents who are withdrawing life support care from their neonate. He is great with the parents and popular with many people in the entire Medical Center,” Karen said, while noting, “He’s the smartest guy I know.”
Frank Boehm, M.D., vice chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology, has witnessed Walsh’s expertise and impact over the years.
“In my capacity as Maternal Fetal Medicine Director for 24 years and then as Vice Chair of the Department of OB/GYN for eight years, I can say that working with Dr. Bill Walsh has been a truly wonderful experience. His expertise in the field of neonatology is exceptional and his professional, calm, easygoing and friendly manner makes each encounter an exceptional as well as educational experience,” Boehm said.
“Vanderbilt has been fortunate to have Bill on its faculty and the many children’s lives he has saved or improved can also be thankful. From the entire MFM faculty we thank him for his dedicated work and wish him well in the road ahead.”
Bekah Gannon (no relation), a Child Life Specialist at Children’s Hospital, has witnessed Walsh’s work firsthand. She recalls meeting him and how he referred to the NICU as “my nursery.” Her twins, Eli and Issac, were born weighing 1 pound and 2 pounds.
“One terrible night when one of our twins, Eli, coded, I remember Dr. Walsh standing over Eli’s bed, giving his tiny body chest compressions with just his pointer fingers, because Eli was still so little,” Gannon said. “He and his team saved Eli’s life that night, among many other times in those five months.
“One day when we were nearing the end of our NICU stay he came by the room and delivered a keychain with the “Gannon” family crest on it (also being his wife’s name). A small gesture, but at the time brought me so much needed hope for the future. Eli and his twin brother Isaac are 7 now…and we still have that keychain taped to our refrigerator, waiting for when Eli gets his first set of keys. That keychain will rightfully be his.”