Pioneer of Modern-day Neonatology Celebrates Over 50 Years of Preemie Care

80-year-old Philip Sunshine has no plans to retire. “I guess they still enjoy my work,” he says.

For release: July 9, 2010

Stanford, Calif. – Helping save the lives of 30,000 babies. Co-founding the California Perinatal Association. Educating students from around the world.
Professor Emeritus Philip Sunshine, MD, has been very busy since he first came to Stanford in 1957, back when the School of Medicine was actually located in San Francisco. And what this humble and gentle man has accomplished not only forms a narrative of modern-day neonatal care, but makes him clearly “a pioneer and one of the creators of our discipline,” says David Stevenson, MD, professor of pediatrics, who proudly acknowledges Sunshine’s mentoring. “He’s one of our history’s best.”

Phillip Sunshine, MD 

It’s a history that’s seen a revolution in saving lives. “When I first started seeing patients in the intensive care nursery, preemie survival was less than 50 percent,” recalls Sunshine. “Now, it’s well over 90 percent.”
Sunshine has been both author and witness to an explosion of research and care. “In 1963, when I finished my fellowship, there had been only a few papers published even talking about neonatology,” Sunshine remembers. “And the term neonatology had only been around since 1960.”
Stevenson, director of the Johnson Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Services at Packard Children’s, cites Sunshine’s “intellectual versatility and extraordinary clinical insight” as a researcher. For example, he was a member of the team that first implemented mechanical ventilation at Stanford, and devised the first scoring system for selection of infants to be treated with assisted ventilation. He was the first in the United States to describe a child with ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency, a rare and deadly metabolic disorder. He was part of the team that documented for the first time the occurrence of hyperammonemia, a dangerous rise of ammonia in the blood, accompanying intravenous feedings of newborns.
Sunshine has also led groundbreaking research in developmental gastroenterology and nutrition, including one landmark 1964 study that was the first to show that lactose malabsorption can result from acute gastroenteritis. The list of his research accomplishments continues, all very deep, all very scientific, and all very lifesaving.
Looking back, Sunshine remembers one key practice he helped to advance that is now so customary it would seem bizarre to do otherwise. “Up until around 1966, parents weren’t allowed to even come into the nursery with their babies,” he says. “But we discovered that parents provide care that doctors and nurses could not. Parents get to know their babies at an early stage of life and the babies relate well to this.”
Decades later, Sunshine is a comforting, unpretentious presence in the Intermediate Intensive Care Unit, where he prepares preemies and families for the transition home. The big-time Sudoku fan has made only one concession: He’s trimmed his workweek to around 30 hours, leaving him more time for biking, tennis, grandkids and dancing with his wife, Beth.
Sunshine is famously unflashy. In the 1970s, while he was leading several divisions in neonatology and gastroenterology at Stanford, serving on national neonatology boards and associations, creating exam certification measures and more, he was tooling around Palo Alto in a clunky old Dodge Dart to the tune of 275,000 miles, Stevenson recalls. “We also used to joke about the way he dressed, with lots of keys and stuff. People mistook him for a night janitor,” he says.
The awards from his peers have piled up, including the Alwin C. Rambar-James B.D. Mark Award for Excellence in Patient Care, presented May 27 at Stanford’s student clinician ceremony. He is also the recipient of the prestigious Virginia Apgar Award in Perinatal Pediatrics from the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as dozens of other honors the Denver native is too modest to mention. “I don’t know why they give me these things,” says Sunshine.
“He’s launched an unbelievable number of careers,” says William Benitz, MD, chief of neonatology and also the Philip Sunshine, MD, Endowed Professor in Neonatology, a position Benitz calls “a tremendous honor.” Benitz notes Sunshine’s coast-to-coast influence on leaders such as Josef Neu, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida, who salutes Sunshine as “a terrific mentor both clinically and scientifically, one who will always be remembered as truly special.”
Sunshine turned 80 on June 16, and he has no plans to leave the institution he has been a part of since 1957, minus a two-year stint in the Navy in the late 1950s and four years in leadership positions at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and the University of Southern California School of Medicine.
“Phil is an amazing contributor,” Benitz says. “He’s out on the road and involved in regional outreach programs, visiting community hospitals and providing ongoing medical education.”
“I’ve been lucky,” Sunshine says. “I grew up in an exciting new sub-specialty, I have five healthy children and six healthy grandkids, my wife still puts up with me, and if my health stays OK, I’ll keep working. My agreement with the division chief is that as long as I do an excellent job, he’ll keep me on.”
OK, so let’s ask the chief. “From my perspective, Phil just might work forever,” Benitz says, “He’s still fully-engaged in babies and their care, not as a detached authority figure but in a very intimate way. He is extraordinarily important to our mission as neonatologists, and his perspective and achievements are timeless.”