Big gains for the littlest babies

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital is a special place ­­– full of challenges, innovative technology and, perhaps most importantly, hope. Ranked among the nation’s best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in multiple pediatric specialties (including neonatology), OHSU Doernbecher has come a long way in the last 90 years.

Below, we learn more about the first complete premature unit (or “preemie nursery,” as it was known at the time) in the Northwest from a doctor and a nurse who helped make it all happen: Dr. S. Gorham Babson and Nurse Betty Weible.

Dr. S. Gorham Babson examining a young patient

A self-described “farm boy” who grew up on an orchard in the Hood River Valley, Dr. Babson knew from a young age that he wanted to work with children. He went to the University of Oregon Medical School (now OHSU) and completed an internship at Multnomah County Hospital, where he was encouraged to pursue his interest in pediatrics.

“After enjoying Doernbecher tremendously, I was more convinced that pediatrics was the field of choice, and I applied to go to Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York,” he said. “It was the largest and newest medical center in the world.”

After his training at the Babies Hospital in New York, Dr. Babson moved to Stanford as a senior resident. He ultimately brought all of this specialized training back to his home state, setting up a private practice in downtown Portland, where he cared for children from about 1940 to the 1950s, while also training residents, interns and students at his alma mater, the University of Oregon Medical School.

“At the time there were only six or seven pediatricians in this whole area,” he said. “I never refused a house call.”

Though Dr. Babson was willing to see every young patient – he preferred caring for infants under the age of 2 – he started to specialize in the care of newborns.

Then came the call that would change the course of his career – and the course of neonatal care in the region.

“I remember it well. I got a call in my downtown office from Shirley Thompson, R.N., Superintendent of Doernbecher Hospital. I can’t tell you how exciting that call was. She asked me to help her nurse [Betty Weible], who had been sent to Los Angeles County Hospital with its huge nursery, to learn about premature care,” he said. They were hoping to set up a new preemie wing at Doernbecher and Thompson was looking for someone to be the medical advisor.

The need for this specialized care was clear, recalls nurse Betty Weible in a 1999 interview: “[We] had begun to realize that we were saving more of the tiny babies – the lower birth weights and shorter gestation were surviving the deliveries – and that they really needed to be in a protected area where they could get the specific kind of care that they required.”

Nurses Betty Weible and Shirley Thompson

The 10-incubator preemie nursery opened in January of 1950. Prior to this, there was only room for one or two incubators on the fifth floor of Doernbecher – the additional incubators provided the capacity needed to accept babies from outside Multnomah County Hospital.

“After three months, we were accepting preemies from all hospitals in Portland,” Dr. Babson said. “In a year we were sending our nurse with her carrying incubator to Salem, Eugene and other hospitals in Oregon.”

Dr. Babson and his team quickly realized that, as the only preemie center in Oregon picking up infants from outside the hospital, they had to get organized in order to provide better support for babies who might need special medicine or intubation while in transit.

“We had only been accepting babies that had stabilized in their referring hospital. It suddenly became clear to us that we needed to get there sooner,” Dr. Babson said. So they started sending their nurse, resident (and later, fellow) to the delivering hospital to bring the baby back to Doernbecher for specialized care.

A Portland car dealer provided a Chevrolet van, which the team equipped with a modern incubator. Dr. Babson also helped develop a system of supplying needed fluids and glucose via scalp vein insertions, which all nurses were soon trained to do. By the 1960s, Dr. Babson and Nurse Weible were overwhelmed by their success.

“We saved [more than] 500 infants under 1,500 grams (3 pounds, 5 ounces) in the first 15 years,” Dr. Babson said.

By the mid 1960s — thanks to the Doernbecher Hospital Guild’s (now the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Foundation) successful fundraising efforts and better management of investments — there was funding available to invest in a priority project at Doernbecher. Babson made an appeal for the creation of Oregon’s first neonatal intensive care unit, and the 24-bed NICU was opened in 1967.

In the 1970s, transporting patients took off – literally – with the use of Huey helicopters.

By 1972, the demand for neonatal care was so great out of the Portland area that further modifications to the transport system needed to be put in place. In order to reach more families in less time, they started sending nurses and doctors to the referring hospital by air.

“This was obtained by the use of Huey helicopters provided by the National Air Guard,” Dr. Babson said. “By 1974, we increased the air transport from zero to one-third of all admissions to the unit. These admissions were from the coast, Eastern Oregon and Southern Washington.”

Over time this evolved into PANDA (Pediatric and Neonatal Doernbecher) Transport, which provides high-level quality ICU care for critically ill and injured children during inter-facility ground and fixed wing transports. Our PANDA team strives to be the best pediatric/neonatal specialty transport team serving our region – a mission that Dr. Babson and Nurse Weible surely would approve.

Today, OHSU Doernbecher continues to offer the most advanced neonatal intensive care in the region, serving patients from across Oregon and beyond. We are proud to be one of the top pediatric neonatal programs in the nation. Learn more about our NICU here.


This blog post drew heavily from quotes collected in two Oral History Project interviews conducted by Heather Rosenwinkel in 1999, which have been condensed and edited for brevity. You can read Dr. Babson’s full interview here and Nurse Weible’s full interview here. Many thanks to OHSU Historical Collections and the Doernbecher Children’s Hospital Foundation for their research assistance.


Related reading

Swimming in the NICU
Once upon a time: Mae Lin’s Doernbecher story
It’s a roller coaster ride: One mom’s NICU experience
A note of thanks from 8-year-old former NICU patient Elle

5 responses to “Big gains for the littlest babies

  1. Love this history of OHSU’s NICU! I only hope we can continue to make history and change families by opening a much needed state of the art unit! Hoping for a “yes” vote so we can move out of the past and into the future of NICU care for our families and their precious babies!

  2. This was great to read! As a previous resident (paitient) of OHSU’s NICU back in the early eighties, it is exciting to hear about it’s amazing beginnings. My twin sister and I have a lot to be grateful for, and the staff and care of that NICU is only part of it. To all who work, and have worked, and volunteered there, I say, “Thank you, and God bless you”

  3. As a former pediatric resident who had the honor of training at OHSU I want to point out the critical role of the nurses in developing NICU care. I think that Helen Katagiri RN is in the picture with the helicopter. The nurses , and the nurse practicioners, have made this all possible. I still remember their help in the middle of the night!

    1. Absolutely, Charlene! I hope that was reflected in this blog post, which was based on interviews with Dr. Babson and Betty Weible, R.N.
      A nice quote from Dr. Babson emphasizing the importance of the NICU’s team approach: “Working with infants with a combination effort, and the nurse was just as important – if not more so – than the doctor.” You can read his full interview here.

  4. This was a nice piece of history to read. I was one of those babies that was picked up from Emanuel hospital in 1960. Over two months premature weighing only two and a half pounds. Went home approximately 73 days later.
    Thanks to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital and Dr. Babson and the nurses.

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