William Walsh, MD, 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 after,’ whether it’s an insurance issue, or a form. ‘Do what’s best and you’ll come out OK,’” said Marlee Crankshaw, RN, DNP, CNML, director of 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 four decades, with 25 of those years as chief of Nurseries at Vanderbilt University Medical Center 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 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.
“Witnessing the phenomenal growth of Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt has been one of the great pleasures of my career,” said Walsh. “The greatest strength of Children’s Hospital is a focus and dedication to the primary mission of providing unsurpassed health care to the children of Middle Tennessee and to training the next generation of providers.
“I have never encountered an objection to doing what is best for the babies despite costs and insurance obstacles. That dogged determination to do the right thing for our babies has been a true blessing. I am so proud of the hundreds of graduate residents and fellows who now provide excellent care throughout the region, and many even worldwide.”
Walsh’s retirement is effective June 30.
“While I will miss the daily interactions with my colleagues and the critically ill infants, I look forward to a new chapter of dedicated family time,” Walsh said.
Walsh initially thought he would be a pilot, signing up for the U.S. Air Force, which offered a free college education. He attended the Air Force Academy, soon realizing that 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 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 of 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, MD, 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. They understand what families are going through. The couple lost their daughter, Hope, when she was 7 due to congenital medical complications.
Walsh’s experiences and mentoring helped shape the careers of the people he worked with, such as Meg Rush, MD, chief of staff at Children’s Hospital.
“I have had the honor and joy of knowing Bill Walsh since the day he interviewed for his position here at Vanderbilt — he will recall the story that my office was so hot, he dozed off a couple of times. It has been a true privilege to learn from and partner with him in the care and advocacy for babies and moms, in the development of training and research programs, and in the growth of our neonatology services,” Rush said.
“Bill is one of the kindest, smartest and most intuitive and attentive physicians I know. He is truly the consummate academic neonatologist, having excelled in each of our missions over his career. Bill has touched the lives of so many — and those who have worked with him will carry on this legacy ‘What Would Walsh Do?’ His daily presence will be missed but his approach to clinical care and teaching live on in his families and those he has mentored,” she added.
Frank Boehm, MD, 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 whose lives he has saved or improved can also be thankful. From the entire maternal fetal medicine faculty we thank him for his dedicated work and wish him well in the road ahead.”
Bekah Gannon, a Child Life specialist at Children’s Hospital, has witnessed Walsh’s work firsthand. She recalls meeting him when her twins, Eli and Isaac, were born weighing 1 pound and 2 pounds, respectively, and were in the NICU.
“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 maiden 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.”
– by Christina Echegaray