Dr. L. Joseph Butterfield: A lasting legacy in neonatal care

Caregivers / Researcher

dr butterfield

If you travelled back in time 50 years, you’d hardly recognize the field of neonatal care.

Infant mortality was high in those days – about four times what it is today. It was a time when most community hospitals lacked the full range of resources to effectively treat premature and ill newborns. A time when doctors had to tell desperate mothers that nothing could be done; when countless parents grieved babies who died within days of birth.

These were the hard realities when famed neonatologist L. Joseph Butterfield began overseeing the Newborn Center at Children’s Hospital Colorado. Recognizing the region’s tremendous need for better newborn care, Dr. Butterfield had a vision: He wanted Children’s Colorado to become a care center for premature and sick babies across a vast 500,000-square-mile area, offering treatment and technologies that weren’t available in most community hospitals.  

The Newborn Center had just seven beds when it first opened in 1965. But that didn’t stop Butterfield from establishing one of the country’s first emergency neonatal transport teams in the early 1970s to bring babies from the far reaches of the region to Children’s Colorado. Before long, the Newborn Center was gaining national attention. Within 10 years, it had quadrupled in size and was admitting nearly 1,000 newborns a year from a seven-state region.

Forefather of family-centered care

Even as thousands of babies were receiving life-saving care through the Newborn Center, Butterfield, who himself had a daughter born with a congenital illness, never forgot the personal touches. He established a pioneering neonatal hospice program that provided support and a peaceful environment for families whose infants were dying.

“Family and bereavement support was important to him,” said Susan Clarke, a nurse who worked under Butterfield as a perinatal outreach coordinator for nearly 15 years. “Even for the families whose babies died, I’m hopeful that they can look back and say that they received the best possible care in a supportive environment.”

Butterfield also pioneered new policies regarding parental involvement. He did away with visiting hours at the Newborn Center, allowing parents to come and go as they pleased.  One nurse recalled how he placed a set of steps outside the window of the nursery so siblings could climb up to see their brothers and sisters.

He also encouraged parents to cuddle and care for their babies – a revolutionary concept at a time when many hospitals believed that having family at the bedside was disruptive.  “He would ensure that, at the soonest possible point, mothers and fathers could see and touch their babies, even if it was just holding their fingers through the incubator door,” said Clarke.

Saving lives through education

Bringing babies to Children’s Colorado for treatment was just the beginning. From the time the Newborn Center opened, Butterfield worked tirelessly to improve evidence-based care through a Perinatal Outreach Education Program. Butterfield reached out to caregivers across the region to enhance knowledge-sharing, offering advice, training, and a telephone hotline for consultations and transports.

Butterfield’s outreach efforts were instrumental in helping local providers learn how to stabilize and treat critically ill babies more effectively. Within years, his team had transformed newborn care across the region.  Colorado’s infant mortality rate – the fifth highest in the nation in 1960 – was the second lowest by 1978.

“He had the passion, the patience and the willingness to go out and talk to people,” said Doug Jones, M.D., former chair of the Department of Pediatrics.  “He learned very early on the power of bringing people together.”

A lasting legacy

Butterfield died in 1999 at the age of 72, but not before building an enduring legacy. The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Colorado has continued to grow and today has 86 beds and an outstanding team that treats thousands of babies every year. Most importantly, Butterfield’s legacy of providing excellent care and support for the entire family has become a core tenet of the Children’s Colorado treatment philosophy.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for Dr. Butterfield,” said Clarke. “He was indeed a visionary beyond measure.”

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