William Meadow, pioneer in neonatal intensive care and medical ethics, 1948-2019

September 17, 2019

Written By
John Easton

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William L. Meadow, MD, PhD, a leading authority on the care of infants born prematurely or with significant health concerns, died at the age of 70 on Saturday, September 14, after battling leukemia for four years. He retired from clinical work but remained an active member of the section of neonatology.

Meadow, working with close colleagues in clinical medical ethics, Mark Siegler, MD, and John Lantos, MD — who is now at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri — was a pioneer in the development of neonatal bioethics, the complex set of medical and personal calculations that guide decision making for parents, physicians and nurses who care for infants born too soon or with significant congenital problems or infections.

“Bill was a teacher in everything that he did,” Lantos said. “He was absolutely committed to students and education, as well as to his patients. He was the only doctor I have ever met who made rounds on each of his patients twice a day, then came back in the evening to make rounds again.”

In their book, Neonatal Bioethics: The Moral Challenges of Medical Innovation (2006), Meadow and Lantos also helped change the way neonatologists weighed the decision to withdraw life support. Before their work, most neonatal authorities tended to focus on what Lantos called the “moment of highest uncertainty.” Meadow gradually convinced neonatologists to be more patient, to wait an extra day or two. “This led to much more accurate prognostication,” Lantos explained. “People caught on.”

“Bill would also, once a year, spend a full day as a nurse, with appropriate guidance,” Lantos said. He insisted this was the only way a doctor can know how challenging nursing can be. The NICU nurses “teased him, and questioned his efficiency,” Lantos said, “but they admired and appreciated the effort.”

Meadow had an outstanding career. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Amherst College in 1969, earned his MD in 1974 and his PhD in 1976 from the University of Pennsylvania. He began his pediatrics residency at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, followed by a year at the University of Chicago Hospitals in 1975 and a year at Children’s Memorial, also in Chicago. After completing his residency in pediatrics he began working as an attending neonatologist and completed fellowships in infectious disease and medical ethics at the University of Chicago Hospitals.

He joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 1981, was promoted to associate professor in 1987 and then full professor of pediatrics in 2001. He took over the neonatology fellowship program in 2003 and was co-director of neonatology from 2005 to 2014.

Meadow lectured extensively throughout North America and Europe on medical and neonatal ethics. He published more than 90 academic papers and 48 book chapters on neonatology and medical ethics, as well as more than 200 scholarly abstracts.

“Bill Meadow impacted more people’s lives than anyone I’ve ever met,” said his colleague, UChicago neonatologist Michael Schreiber, MD. One of his strengths was “to show us how to develop a work-life balance. He had a difficult job but he somehow found the time to make it home for dinner with the family and to coach his kids. He inspired us to do the same.”

Meadow’s standard greeting for faculty, staff and patient families was “Welcome to the NICU. You’re going to love it here.” It was merely an icebreaker, but how Meadow introduced the neonatal intensive care unit to new faculty, residents and medical students, as well as the parents of patients in need.

Many new residents were not prepared for his unique approach to the NICU. Intensive care units “can be grumpy places,” Lantos explained, “but Bill found ways to lighten the mood, like singing on rounds. He made people, especially parents, feel a little more comfortable.”

“Everybody thinks of the NICU as a vast majority of severely premature babies,” Lantos said. These often very tiny babies “may be premature,” he continued, but “the vast majority of these children go home and do fine.”

“He was also a huge family man,” said his wife Susan Goldin-Meadow, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Chicago. “That was really important to him. He made time despite a doctor’s schedule. He was extraordinarily generous with his family, and his colleagues really enjoyed working with him.”

“But he was also a dedicated physician. He never complained. When the urgent calls came, when his leadership was necessary for the care for a sick child, he got up and went in. He just did it. He enjoyed doing that. He somehow relished odd schedules.”

He was a “wonderful, charming man and a surrogate father to much of Hyde Park and the University community,” she added. “He could be gruff, when needed, but he was loved. He was a great husband.”

The Meadows have three children who prefer to go by their nicknames. Xander, a senior database engineer, is married to Jessica Kumar. They have two children, Cody and Zia. Shmug is training to become an internal medicine resident at Loyola University. Beanie is training at Lurie Children’s Hospital to become a neonatologist.

A funeral service is scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 17, at 10 a.m. at KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation, 1100 East Hyde Park Boulevard, Chicago. In lieu of flowers, contributions in memory of Dr. Meadow may be sent to the University of Chicago Medical Center at 5235 S. Harper Court, 4th Floor, Chicago, IL 60615.