Saving Premature Babies

A doctor’s invention saves babies in the developing world.

Dr. Thomas Hansen

Photo by Anil Kapahi

Saving Premature Babies

A doctor’s invention saves babies in the developing world.

By anyone’s reckoning, Thomas Hansen ’70 has earned a retirement filled with long walks along the shore, late nights at the theater and invigorating travel. Yet upon stepping down as Seattle Children’s Hospital’s CEO after a decade-long tenure, the medical doctor headed back to his laboratory to continue working on a low-cost device that could mean the difference between life and death for premature infants around the globe.

“In the U.S., an infant beyond 26 weeks gestation has an outstanding chance of survival, but many hospitals in the developing world don’t even try to save those babies.”
Thomas Hansen '70

“A million infants die a year as a result of underdeveloped lungs,” said Hansen, whose gentle drawl betrays his Texas roots. “In the U.S., an infant beyond 26 weeks gestation has an outstanding chance of survival, but many hospitals in the developing world don’t even try to save those babies because they are a huge drain on resources.”

Enter Seattle Children’s Positive Airway Pressure, a machine that breathes for newborns too sick, tiny or weak to do so on their own and costs as little as $20 to build. A grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped finance what’s grown from a three- to a five-year project. Hansen said he will consider retiring in earnest when that support concludes in late 2018.

“Tom loves the sport of car racing, and I used to joke with him that in his job he had two feet on the accelerator at all times,” said Kelly Wallace, senior vice president and chief financial officer at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

Sparks of Interest

During his days at TCU, Hansen had an outsized presence, with energy and ambition to spare. The Wichita Falls, Texas, native arrived on campus in the mid-1960s with a full-tuition Chancellor’s Scholarship as well as a young bride. The couple welcomed their daughter, Elaine, in the spring of Hansen’s freshman year. “From the start, I loved Fort Worth, which back then was a small town with a big-time arts scene.”

Always a stellar math and science student, Hansen pursued a degree in physics, doing research for his honor’s thesis alongside Charles Blount, a physics professor who is now retired. “Dr. Blount was a terrific mentor who instilled in me a lifelong love of research and who demanded rigor in all our efforts in the laboratory and in the classroom.”

Midway through his junior year, and in part because Hansen found working in a physics lab somewhat isolating, he shifted academic gears and set his sights on medical school. “Though this was late in the game, TCU was great about scheduling the right courses for me.” Hansen graduated summa cum laude — and with an acceptance letter to Baylor College of Medicine.

Before starting medical school, Hansen enrolled in a program for incoming students who wanted to pursue research. During the summer of 1970, he apprenticed with a doctor at Houston’s former Jefferson Davis Hospital. “It was a very busy maternity hospital with something like 14,000 deliveries a year at that time,” Hansen said. “In my three months there, I never saw a premature baby survive who required mechanical ventilation.” He credited the experience with sparking his lifelong interest in the causes and treatment of pulmonary disease in infants.

Hansen earned his medical degree in 1973 and did a pediatric residency at Baylor, followed by a two-year fellowship in neonatology. He then headed to the University of California, San Francisco, on a second fellowship to study pediatric pulmonary diseases. In the 1980s, he came back to Texas as a professor of pediatrics at Baylor while continuing his research and held the Texas Children’s Hospital Foundation Endowed Chair in Neonatology.

Thinking Big

In 1995, Ohio State University and what was then Columbus Children’s Hospital called, and Hansen, his second wife, Cheryl, and their young son, William, headed north. After two years as the medical director of Columbus Children’s (now Nationwide Children’s), Hansen was named CEO of the hospital, which was in the midst of a financial crisis.

“I knew we needed to cut costs without cutting clinical services, which kept the doctors and nurses happy,” Hansen said, noting he made up the shortfall in part by reducing administrative expenditures. “I sat down with the CEOs of the major insurance companies and told them what we needed from them if we were going to survive as an independent hospital.”

Hansen set about expanding the hospital’s research presence into the powerhouse it remains today. Through it all, he continued serving as chairman of pediatrics. In 1997, the graduating class of the Ohio State University School of Medicine voted Hansen its Professor of the Year.

When he became CEO of Seattle Children’s Hospital in 2005, Hansen brought Charles “Skip” Smith an Ohio lab colleague with him. “Seattle wanted to build a research program, and I was tired of the winters in Columbus,” Hansen said. “The timing felt right.”

“In one of our first meetings, I was proudly showing Tom plans for a new half-million-square-foot research facility,” Wallace said. “His immediate reaction was that we needed to triple that. Tom was always a big thinker — and he was right. If we’d gone with our original plan, we would be out of space today and facing the possibility of curbing our research.”

“His vision and innovation changed this institution forever.”
Kelly Wallace, senior vice president and chief financial officer at Seattle Children's Hospital

Wallace also noted that during Hansen’s long tenure as Seattle Children’s CEO, “everything tripled — our assets, our profits and our revenues. His vision and innovation changed this institution forever.”

‘In the Middle of Things’

In Seattle, Hansen spent one day a week in the lab, focusing with his team on what would become the low-cost respiratory support device for infants.

Since retiring as CEO in 2015, Hansen still commutes from his Mercer Island home to work a couple of days a week in his lab. He also remains a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine as well as an adjunct professor in the university’s department of bioengineering.

In addition, the Gates Foundation grant enabled Hansen to tour neonatal intensive care units around the world. “I teach a lot when I visit those places,” he said. “And I like to get out there in the middle of things.”

In summer 2016, Hansen was appointed to TCU’s College of Science & Engineering’s External Advisory Board, a three-year commitment. “I met Dr. Hansen last summer on a visit to Seattle and was struck by his passion for and fond remembrances of TCU,” said Phil Hartman, dean of the college.

“Given his distinguished career, sharp intellect and continued interest in TCU, I felt he would be an ideal addition to our college advisory board,” Hartman said. “I’m grateful he has agreed to serve in this capacity and look forward to his contributions to the college.”

The eldest of Hansen’s grandchildren is now a junior at TCU. “My grandfather has always been super-invested in his work, so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s still doing so much to help kids,” said Maria Cavazos, a social work major with a minor in child development. “I always ask him when he’s going to relax and travel.”

Hansen does spend time in the East London home he purchased with Cheryl, who died in 2015. “We were huge fans of the theater, and where we live was a great jumping-off point to take in the arts around the city,” he said.

But when he is in Washington state, Hansen dons his lab coat and digs into the mechanics of saving lives. “Within the last few years, two different women in their 30s who were very premature babies back when I started at Baylor have come to visit me,” Hansen said. “It’s amazing to see them doing so well. It’s been a very rewarding career.”