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Neonatologist honors the past, provides for the future

Dr. Roger E. Sheldon and his wife, Carol V. Sheldon, MD

What goes around, comes around. When Roger E. Sheldon, MD ’68, was applying for medical school, one of the staff who interviewed him at Northwestern University Medical School was Merrel D. Flair, EdD, then assistant dean and director of admissions. “Dr. Flair helped select me as a member of the 1968 class and as a recipient of a full-tuition scholarship,” Dr. Sheldon recalls. The administrator also recruited the young man to lead the bass section of the Flair family’s church choir in Oak Park, for $10 a week. “I’m not sure they really needed a bass section leader,” Sheldon recalls, “but the scholarship and job certainly helped me get started in Chicago.”

Now, nearly 50 years later, Dr. Sheldon and his wife, Carol V. Sheldon, MD, have provided an endowment of $100,000 to the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine for the McNicol Flair Sheldon Scholarship, in honor of his maternal uncle, Gordon B. McNicol, MD ’34, who also received scholarships to attend medical school, but died a year after graduation from streptococcal bacterial endocarditis complicating an ear infection; and Dr. Flair, who also died relatively young.

Both men greatly influenced Dr. Sheldon’s path, each in his own way. Even though he never met his uncle, Dr. Sheldon considered Dr. McNicol a role model who “set an example of a possible career path that I might follow.” Similarly, Dr. Flair “was enthusiastic about my admission to Northwestern and eased my way by sincere friendship. While a freshman, I had dinner with his family on several occasions.”

Alum-Sheldon 2

An uncle, Gordon McNicol, MD ’34, and Merrel D. Flair, EdD, former assistant dean and director of admissions at the medical school, inspired Roger Sheldon, MD ’68, to create a scholarship that honors their memory.

The first recipient of the McNicol Flair Sheldon Scholarship, selected at the beginning of the 2013-2014 academic year, is Michael Patlajan.

Saving babies

During his lengthy career, Dr. Sheldon practiced newborn intensive care or neonatology.  “The pediatric folks at Northwestern got me interested in pediatrics and the newborn folks at Boston Children’s Hospital (where he completed a three-year residency in pediatrics) got me interested in newborns,” he says. “I was particularly drawn to the field of neonatology because complex, interesting acute care could make such a vast difference in an infant’s life”

He points out that “approximately 15 percent of the children who end up in the ICU will die, but nearly 100 percent would die if they were not treated in an ICU.”

“Neonatology is a life-saving specialty. It is also a lot of fun, challenging and fascinating, plus there has been a huge increment in knowledge and understanding,” he notes.”And you get to do research and work with and train exciting young doctors!”

“It wasn’t really a specialty in the early 1960s. I was fortunate to get in on the ground floor — my certificate from the American Board of Pediatrics is number 16472, while my sub-board (Neonatology) certificate is number 550.”

After his residency, Dr. Sheldon spent two years in the Army as a pediatrician at William Beaumont General Hospital at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. That was followed by a one-year fellowship in pediatric lung disease and a two-year fellowship in newborn intensive care, both at the University of Colorado in Denver.

Sheldon and his family moved to Oklahoma City in the summer of 1979, at which point he became a section chief for newborn intensive care at the University of Oklahoma, where he remained for 31 years until retiring in 2010.

Improving care

Looking back, Dr. Sheldon is proud of the innovation, training and leadership he provided to expand the duties of neonatal nurse practitioners, both in Denver and Oklahoma City, and subsequently across the country. These nurses learned how to evaluate and manage sick newborns, gaining the ability and authorization to do resuscitation and tracheal intubations, to insert umbilical catheters and chest tubes, and to support the baby and family. He describes many of these procedures and the practice protocols governing Neonatologist-NNP joint practice in a book he co-authored in 1983 entitled, “The Expanding Role of the Nurse in Neonatal Intensive Care.”

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Photo of Merrell D. Flair (standing, 2nd from left) his wife Joann (seated with baby) and their family. The Flairs were supportive of Roger Sheldon during medical school.

Through the years, the father of two also devoted a considerable amount of time to developing fast, efficient newborn transport, “a crucial part of care. These children are born all over the place and you need to move them safely to the various newborn ICUs in the region.” Nurse practitioners travel urgently to the birth hospital and stabilize the child for transport by helicopter or ambulance. “We prefer to move the mother before the birth, but sometimes you have to move the baby instead,” Dr. Sheldon says.

Besides attaining a full professorship in pediatrics, with an emphasis in fetal physiology and newborn intensive care, Dr. Sheldon served for more than 20 years as assistant dean of continuing medical education at the University of Oklahoma. He was also closely involved in teaching doctors and nurses at smaller hospitals around Oklahoma about newborn issues, including stabilization and transport. He earned a Masters Degree in Public Health from Oklahoma in 1995. He organized the weekly pediatric grand rounds and taught the evidence-based pediatrics seminar for pediatric residents for many years.

“I always followed the rule: Don’t short-change the clinical care. That’s what keeps your motivational juices flowing,” he asserts.

Dr. Sheldon and his wife Carol were married during his sophomore year at Northwestern and this year they celebrate 48 years together. The couple now lives in Golden Valley, Minn., and has six grandchildren.

Carol earned her medical degree from the University of Colorado in 1979 and became a resident in radiology at the University of Oklahoma. “Carol put me through most of medical school in Chicago by doing computer programming, and I put her through school in Colorado,” he explains.

By creating the McNicol Flair Sheldon Scholarship, “Carol and I hope, in some small way, to repay the scholarship support that was given to us,” Dr. Sheldon says. “I also hope that some of my classmates and others who received scholarship support will also consider endowing named scholarships in pursuit of our dream of making Feinberg the first tuition-free medical school. Consider the effect of freeing young doctors from the constraints of massive medical school debt. And remember, this will take much more support than in the days when a full tuition scholarship totaled $1,500 per year!”

Michael Patlajan, Class of 2017 - first recipient of the McNicol Flair Sheldon Scholarship

Michael Patlajan, Class of 2017 – first recipient of the McNicol Flair Sheldon Scholarship