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Virginia Delaney-Black '73, M.D., M.P.H.: Intensive caring
By Jon Douglas
Please don't put me with the babies!" pleaded Virginia Delaney- Black, M.D., when she learned she had to do a pediatrics rotation during her internship at Dartmouth. "I don't have any experience with babies, and I don't know how to handle them!" But Delaney- Black soon discovered she loved working with newborns. Convinced that she had found her calling, she petitioned to switch her residency from internal medicine to pediatrics.
Now, more than three decades later, Delaney-Black is still working with babies. As a clinician, she treats newborns at Detroit's Hutzel Women's Hospital and at Children's Hospital of Michigan. As a teacher, she's a tenured professor in the pediatrics department at Wayne State University. And as a researcher, she studies how prenatal cocaine and alcohol exposure later affects children and teenagers. Her most important research finding is that the effect of prenatal cocaine use appears to be gender specific. Six- and sevenyear- old boys exposed to cocaine before they were born tend to have more behavioral problems, such as acting out inappropriately, than do girls of a similar age. And children exposed to higher levels of the drug during gestation exhibit more pronounced effects.
Delaney-Black's research is observational and so provides a foundation for understanding what interventions may be most appropriate. While her studies have not looked at the effects of potential interventions, caring for patients—no matter what their ailments are—is at the heart of her role as a physician.
Next to her office computer is a picture of an adolescent boy named Sean, whom she treated in the intensive care unit nearly a decade ago. The infant was on a heart bypass machine because he had pulmonary hypertension, and Delaney-Black was afraid he wasn't going to survive. But she half-joked to hide her anxiety: "I told the mother that Sean was giving me gray hair," she recalls, "and I didn't have time to go to the hairdresser." But Sean pulled through, and Delaney-Black says he's now a handsome young man who's doing well in school. For Delaney-Black, this picture symbolizes the idea that although she works in a
specialty in which losing a patient is especially heartbreaking, good things happen, too. The memory of caring for Sean—an experience that Delaney-Black says touched her forever—reminds her of why she wanted to become a physician in the first place.
Delaney-Black grew up in Framingham, Mass. A child of the Sputnik generation—so named for the Soviet satellite that was launched in 1957—she was swept up in the excitement about science and technology. She didn't want to be an astronaut. But between sixth grade and high school she decided to become a physician. She channeled her zeal for science by twice entering the National Science Fair, with a project on the sexual development of guppies. Her project won first prize during her senior year.
After graduating, she decided to attend an all-female college with a good reputation for guiding women interested in medicine—Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, Mass. Then she enrolled in Dartmouth Medical School—a bold choice for someone who considers herself to be risk-averse. Delaney-Black felt uncomfortable at DMS, even though it was similar in scale to Mount Holyoke. A "quiet, introverted" person, she describes her medical school years as a "rough time," during which she had trouble studying and concentrating.
She felt a financial pinch as well. She didn't have a car—and thus couldn't visit
friends still at Mount Holyoke—and, she recalls, "I didn't spend extra money on movies, and making a long-distance phone call was something I had to think about."
She also felt isolated at Dartmouth. She was used to the all-female environment of Mount Holyoke, but at DMS she was one of only half a dozen women in her class. And there was only a smattering of women elsewhere on campus. This was during the early 1970s, when Dartmouth was debating the merits of the undergraduate program becoming coeducational, and many people expressed negative feelings about having women on campus. Delaney-Black recalls one student she encountered at the Hanover Co-op food store, who said, "I'd rather be dead than have co-eds at Dartmouth!" Her sense that women were unwelcome in Hanover was exacerbated by campus ferment over the Vietnam War. Delaney-Black recalls that some of her male colleagues resented women being accepted to medical school in place of men who might otherwise be drafted to fight in Vietnam. Furthermore, they feared that the women might "waste" their education by having children instead of practicing medicine.
Yet those sentiments only strengthened Delaney-Black's determination to finish her degree, and she received her M.D. from DMS in 1973. "If there's anything I'm going to do, I'm not going to drop out," she says. "I'm going to work twice as hard."
Although Delaney-Black remembers that she "anchored the bottom half of [her] class pretty well" in medical school, she excelled during her pediatric residency and fellowship in neonatal- perinatal medicine, both of which she completed at Dartmouth- Hitchcock Medical Center. She also has fond memories of cross-country skiing with fellow residents on Sunday afternoons and having dinner at her Cornish, N.H., home with them afterwards.
Meanwhile, at DHMC, she was honing her skills as a clinician under the mentorship of neonatologist George Little, M.D. Delaney- Black recalls a baby named Diana, who at just 1,070 grams (about 2.3
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Jon Douglas, a 1992 graduate of Dartmouth College, is a freelance writer who was until recently based in Chicago. Patients' names have been changed to protect their privacy.