Thursday, 12 January 2012

Hommage to a Woman Whose Research and Advocacy Has Saved Immense Numbers of Premature Babies: Mary Ellen Avery

Everyone whose life has been touched over the last 40 years by a premature baby who survived owes a debt to a woman whose death was reported this morning in The New York Times, Mary Ellen Avery.

Dr. Avery, who was for a time at McGill University and Montreal Children's Hospital but whose career basically was in the US, made the link between the absence of surfuctant in the lungs of babies born before term and their inability to breathe properly.

The condition knew no class barriers: the third child of President John Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Bouvier lived only two days after he was born five and a half weeks prematurely in August, 1963. At the time, treatment pioneered by Dr. Avery and her colleagues had not been perfected. But since then, it is quite usual for children born at 7 months or even less to survive with no lasting problems.

One of the most difficult periods of Lee's and my life together was the time when we had twins, stillborn at 23 weeks. Babies born that prematurely survive rarely even today--and perhaps shouldn't because the medical challenges they face are immense. But this summer when friends of Elin and Emmanuel had a baby at 32 weeks it was wonderful to think that Sivan's parents didn't have to worry about the problem Dr. Avery's research solved.

She's doing very well, it seems. And in our case, Lukas was born a year after the twins, ready to take on the world...

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