A hero for young hearts

Published: November 6, 2006 | 5006th good news item since 2003

Pediatric cardiologist to be honored

A frightened little girl is having her heart examined in a room at the Harlan County Health Department.

An echocardiogram is painless. But Whitney Estes, 5, is uneasy about the echo machine and the strange noises it makes.

Fortunately, the cheerful woman who is directing the test keeps Whitney distracted with continuous banter, asking what kind of costume she wore trick-or-treating the night before and how much candy she hauled home. Through all the chatter, though, Dr. Jacqueline Noonan’s eyes never leave the screen of the echocardiogram machine and its fuzzy, gray image of Whitney’s beating heart.

Soon, a relieved Whitney heads home with a clean bill of health. Noonan has determined that a suspicious sound doctors noticed earlier in the little girl’s chest was only an “innocent murmur.”

“This,” Noonan says, “is the fun part.”

Over the next several hours, she will see a dozen or more youngsters like Whitney. Neither the children nor their parents realize they’re being cared for by a doctor whose name is known at major medical centers around the world.

The University of Kentucky recently established the Dr. Jacqueline A. Noonan Children’s Miracle Network Endowed Chair in Pediatric Research. And today the university is holding the Dr. Jacqueline A. Noonan Symposium, “A Heart of Gold,” at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in downtown Lexington. Up to 150 doctors and health practitioners, including many Noonan trained, are to attend. Gov. Ernie Fletcher is proclaiming today Dr. Jacqueline A. Noonan Day in Kentucky.

Doctor, teacher, pioneer

Noonan is a pioneer in pediatric cardiology, recognized as the discoverer of Noonan syndrome and the first to describe hypoplastic left heart syndrome. She is a pillar of the UK College of Medicine, which she joined in 1961, even before UK Hospital opened, and a teacher who has touched every class of new doctors the school has produced. She has changed lives all over Eastern Kentucky.

Dr. Tim Bricker, chairman of pediatrics at UK and physician in chief at Kentucky Children’s Hospital, says Noonan may have had a greater effect on the health of Kentucky children than anyone else in the state’s history.

“We want the level of excellence that she has held forth throughout her career to be exemplified at Kentucky Children’s Hospital,” Bricker said. “She’s wonderful to work with, always looking for what’s new, what’s next, what’s better. She is one of my heroes.”

Noonan is a tiny woman with blazing curiosity, boundless energy, and a grin that never seems to leave her face.

Officially, she retired from medicine at the end of 1998 but now admits that she “kind of failed at that.”

Noonan still sees patients at UK’s regional health clinics, like the one held Wednesday at the Harlan County Health Department. She still sees a few patients in Lexington and serves on the medical school admissions committee. And on UK’s Institutional Review Board, which oversees medical research. And on the board at UK’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. And she still teaches a class at the medical school. And on and on. Noonan turned 78 last Saturday.

“To me, retirement is how you spend your bonus years, which are the years we really didn’t have until life expectancy went way up,” she says. “So, I thought, what do I want to do with my bonus years? I liked what I was doing during my working years, so I thought I’d keep doing some of that.”

Noonan grew up in Hartford, Conn., knowing by age 5 that she wanted to be a doctor. The first member of her family to attend college, she completed medical school at the University of Vermont and immediately became a star.

While training in pediatric cardiology at Boston Children’s Hospital, she coined the term “hypoplastic left heart syndrome” and wrote the first description of the congenital cardiac defect.

Later, after joining the faculty at the University of Iowa, she noticed that many children with certain congenital heart problems also demonstrated genetic characteristics such as short stature. Her description of the phenomenon became known as Noonan syndrome and now is recognized worldwide.

At UK from the beginning

By the early ’60s, Noonan probably could have landed a job at any big medical center in the country. Instead, she came to Lexington in early 1961 to join a fledgling medical school at UK.

At that time, no other pediatric cardiologist was practicing in Kentucky east of Louisville. Noonan immediately began criss-crossing Eastern Kentucky, evaluating children with congenital heart problems that had largely gone untreated.

One of her first patients was Pike County’s Margaret Schoolcraft, then 11, who had lived with heart trouble since birth. In 1962, Noonan admitted her to UK Hospital, as the first patient ever in the new facility. She had open-heart surgery a few days later.

Margaret Schoolcraft Bartley, now 55 and still living in Pike County, remembers that her family traveled to Lexington by Greyhound bus, and that Noonan “spoiled me rotten” while she was in the hospital.

“I still love Dr. Noonan to death,” she says.

Barbara Buntin of Jackson County was 16 when Noonan referred her for heart surgery at UK in 1964. Buntin’s son, Neal Buntin, later would became a patient of Noonan himself.

“Dr. Noonan knows me inside and out,” said Barbara Buntin, now 58. “Even today, if I have a question I still call her up. She’s so kind. Words can’t describe Dr. Noonan.”

Dr. Jamie Jacobs, a cardiologist in private practice in Lexington, says there are people like Buntin and Bartley all over Eastern Kentucky who might not have survived into adulthood if Noonan hadn’t been around to diagnose and treat their congenital heart problems.

Michael Karpf, UK’s vice president for health affairs, says medical students at were equally taken with Noonan’s relaxed manner and the willingness of the medical “superstar” to take time to talk and listen to them.

“People tend to just see this lady who works with first-year medical students and goes to clinics in Eastern Kentucky,” Karpf said. “Many don’t realize how important she has been on the national and international scene as a cardiologist. She’s a true pioneer.”

Noonan, who never married, says that as long as she feels well she wants to keep working and building the program she helped to start more than four decades ago.

“I found that people from Eastern Kentucky were wonderful, and if they trusted you they literally would put their lives in your hands,” she said. “I always took that as an enormous responsibility. And it was very rewarding to think that here was some child from a holler in Eastern Kentucky who now had a new heart valve in part because of something you did.”

Published in Healthcare, Kids & Teens
See also: www.kentucky.com
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