'I really love babies'
"I’m fond of saying that pediatric care is the heart of a medical center – it’s a big part of what makes us feel really good about being health-care providers. You can just feel the energy and commitment to children here – it’s tangible."
Robin Steinhorn has spent much of her medical career on groundbreaking research aimed at helping our world’s most fragile humans – newborn infants struggling to take their first breaths.
Now Steinhorn’s singular focus has broadened far beyond the neonatal intensive care unit. Appointed medical director of UC Davis Children’s Hospital almost two years ago, Steinhorn is creating a powerhouse of pediatric care that she believes is well on its way to national prominence.
"There’s no question in my mind that we’re poised to harness our considerable assets and take the children’s hospital to the next level," Steinhorn says.
"When we create healthy children, we create healthy families and a healthy future for our society. And I truly believe the energy and commitment that exists throughout UC Davis Health System helps us elevate our children’s hospital to the highest caliber."
Attracting best, brightest
With that in mind, Steinhorn hit the ground running. Her first priority was to develop a deeper bench of clinicians and investigators, a phase she called essential to ensuring the 129-bed hospital can expand services to better meet the needs of the entire Northern California region.
Steinhorn has embraced recruitment – one of her favorite leadership tasks – with trademark gusto. In the past 18 months, she has recruited 12 faculty members in a wide range of divisions, from endocrinology to infectious diseases, pediatric nephrology and critical care.
She also appointed three new division chiefs – Katherine Rauen, division head of genomic medicine; Stuart Berger, the incoming division head of pediatric cardiology; and Mark Underwood, division head of neonatology. Her faculty recruits hail from respected schools – Rauen is from UC San Francisco and Berger is from the Medical College of Wisconsin.
"These are high-profile recruits," Steinhorn says,"and they are contributors to the national conversation about children’s health. That brings attention and helps elevate the UC Davis name."
If patient numbers are any indication, the hospital’s stature already is on the rise. During Steinhorn’s first year as its director and as chair of the Department of Pediatrics, the patient census for the children’s hospital grew by 17 percent. Visits to subspecialty clinics rose by 10 percent.
Reflecting the growing demand, the university is committed to upgrading its Children’s Surgery Center, Steinhorn says. (See related story.)
"This expansion will establish the unit as the only dedicated, full-service children’s surgery center in our region. It is all and only for children."
Breadth of resources
This initiative follows the opening in 2011 of a state-of-the-art Pediatric Intensive Care Unit that fortified the hospital’s leadership in providing cardiac and critical care to ill and injured children. At 25,000 square feet, the new PICU is double the size of its predecessor and has 24 beds, as well as oversized rooms allowing family members to stay at their child’s bedside around the clock.
Each year, the PICU treats more than 1,000 infants, children and adolescents who experience traumatic injuries or life-threatening infectious diseases, or have undergone surgery to correct complex birth defects such as congenital heart anomalies. Renowned for telemedicine capabilities, UC Davis has two completely integrated telemedicine units that extend the PICU’s reach to communities throughout California.
"Our pediatric ICU is as nice as anything you’ll see anywhere in the country," Steinhorn says, "and our innovative, cutting-edge telemedicine technology and infrastructure are breathtaking."
Steinhorn says these assets, along with the extraordinary resources available through the schools of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, caught her eye as she considered leaving her previous post at Northwestern University, where she served as chief of the Division of Neonatology and vice chair of Pediatrics.
Relocating to California was a major departure from previous career moves. Steinhorn had spent her entire life east of the Mississippi River, including tours of duty at the University of Minnesota (her residency and fellowship) and State University of New York in Buffalo (chief of neonatology).
"Clearly," she quips, "weather was never part of my decision process when it came to what job to take."
Now settled and content in Sacramento, Steinhorn realizes climate is a significant plus." There is something remarkable about not having to wonder when the next snowstorm is coming," says Steinhorn, whose husband of 28 years, David Steinhorn, is a UC Davis pediatric intensivist and whose two grown children followed their parents into medical careers.
While much of her time is spent overseeing the children’s hospital, mentoring residents, recruiting clinicians and mastering the learning curve within the sprawling University of California system, Steinhorn remains passionate about her research and its impact on improving the health of critically ill newborns. Proof of that can be seen in the framed photographs decorating her desk and conference table, most of them pictures of former patients.
As a researcher, Steinhorn has focused principally on newborn vascular biology, an endeavor she says has been "quite invigorated" by new collaborations sparked by the basic science underway all around UC Davis. Connecting with researchers and clinicians in other parts of the university, she says, has convinced her that support for UC Davis Children’s Hospital – and, most importantly, the patients it serves – is widespread.
"I’m fond of saying that pediatric care is the heart of a medical center – it’s a big part of what makes us feel really good about being health-care providers," Steinhorn says."You can just feel the energy and commitment to children here – it’s tangible. And given our resources, I think our potential is limitless."