Linda Van Marter grew up in a doctor’s office.
Her father ran his family medicine practice on the first floor of their three-story Pennsylvania home and the family lived on the upper two floors. Van Marter, the oldest of five siblings, spent much time observing her father in the clinic, shadowing him on rounds at nearby hospitals and watching him peer at culture samples through microscopes.
“I remember him saying to me, ‘Someday you might be looking through a microscope and discover something that nobody else has ever seen before,’” she says.
“Dad was always seeking the best for his patients, whether it be under his own care or through referral,” Van Marter notes. She recalls a particular patient with a complex medical condition. Her father referred the patient to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and was impressed with the care his patient received at this academic medical center.
Her father’s interest in science and academic medicine stoked a fire in Van Marter, M.D., M.P.H., that set her on a path to a distinguished career and becoming the new medical director of the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Maternal, Fetal & Neonatal Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.
“He certainly inspired my scientific curiosity,” she says, “and mom, who ran the business end of dad’s practice, fostered my compassion for patients.”
Initially a Nurse
Van Marter pursued the path into medicine that seemed obvious at the time. She became a nurse.
“In my era, girls who were interested in health care became nurses,” she says. “Careers as doctors and lawyers were kind of boys’ territory.”
Her father challenged her to apply to the School of Nursing at Massachusetts General Hospital where he had seen his patient get great care. As she studied at Mass General, a new world opened up: She discovered women could become doctors.
As a nursing student, Van Marter initiated a meeting with the dean of the Harvard Medical School about how to become a physician.
“He was incredibly kind and took the time to give me advice about what I needed to do to pursue this exciting career path,” she says.
On the Path
Van Marter helped pay for medical school by working as a nurse. She attended medical school at the University of Pittsburgh and then returned to Boston for residency at Boston Children’s Hospital and a research fellowship in neonatal-perinatal medicine at Harvard. She also earned a master of public health in epidemiology at Harvard.
Although she enjoyed working with kids of all ages during residency, she chose to specialize in neonatology because it required diagnostic acumen while allowing the ability to perform procedures and brought “the challenge, intensity, and reward of providing intensive care to a tiny patient.” And yet, it was the joy of working closely to help families through their trauma at one of the most important times in their lives that was the final element that convinced Van Marter that this was her undeniable career path.
A Distinguished Career
Van Marter has spent more than 30 years as an academic neonatologist, clinical researcher, educator, mentor and leader at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School where she has been on the faculty as an associate professor.
With more than 7,000 deliveries per year, including many high-risk births, the perinatal-neonatal service at Brigham & Women’s is the largest high-risk pregnancy delivery service in New England.
She credits her nursing days with influencing how she performs as a physician.
“My former career as a nurse has given me a great appreciation for all that nurses bring to the care of the patients,” Van Marter says. “Their role is just so pivotal and so important in ensuring the best of patient care and patient safety. It's a very different experience to spend 8-12 hours a day at the bedside from the way physicians practice. What nurses do on a daily basis is incredibly valuable to our patients, their families and to the whole health care process.”
As an attending neonatologist on Harvard’s busiest high-risk neonatal-perinatal service, Van Marter had seen just about everything in the field, but she was in for a real surprise in autumn 2020 when she was summoned to Boston’s Zoo New England in Franklin Park to provide “delivery room” resuscitation for a baby gorilla whose mother had an emergency cesarean section due to hemorrhage from placenta previa. “It was a thrill and an honor to work with a remarkable perinatal team to care for this precious endangered baby gorilla and a delight to see him healthy and happy at a year of age,” Van Marter says.
Van Marter has distinguished herself beyond the clinical side. She has conducted pioneering research and relishes educating and mentoring medical trainees.
Her primary research areas are two neonatal cardiopulmonary disorders: bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) and persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn (PPHN). Her work has contributed to the identification of several pregnancy-associated risk factors for PPHN and a greater understanding of clinical practices that may modify the risk for BPD — also called chronic lung disease of prematurity — in infants born before 29 weeks of gestation.
Van Marter has held numerous leadership positions at the local, regional and national level over the years. She is a past chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Section on Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine and was a founder and mentor for its Trainees and Early Career Neonatologists Group that has fostered leadership development of individuals at early stages of their neonatology careers.
“The group has been highly successful,” she says, “because it fosters leadership development and showcases the energy and creativity of our trainees and early career neonatologists. It's a very active organization and now is used by the AAP as a model for groups within the organization. It’s immeasurably rewarding to see these young people thrive. I really love seeing our trainees achieve to their fullest potential.”
Heading to Florida
Van Marter wasn’t looking for a job when a recruiter approached her. But the more she learned about the opportunity with the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Maternal, Fetal & Neonatal Institute, the more intriguing it became.
“I liked the concept of the institute very much,” she says. “The opportunity to build synergy among OB, maternal-fetal medicine and neonatology resonates as a very powerful model. And I was so impressed with the commitment to excellence, collegiality and dedication of everyone I met when I interviewed.
“It also was great to know that Johns Hopkins was on board. Assuming this institute directorship seemed like a challenge that provided a very real opportunity to leave a legacy that would advance scientific knowledge, train excellent neonatologists and obstetricians, and provide the very best of health care to children in Florida and beyond.”
Van Marter joined Johns Hopkins All Children’s in November and began meeting people and gathering information. She said the organization is very supportive of ideas to advance technology and care practice, hone the education mission, and expand research in ways that will impact newborn care not just at Johns Hopkins All Children’s but at other institutions and geographic regions.
But ultimately, she is guided by the lesson she learned as a girl in her father’s office, as a nurse at the bedside and throughout her career as a physician:
“I am incredibly committed to family-focused neonatal and perinatal care,” she says. “The best for the baby and the family must always be at the center of everything we do.”