From the day Roberto Sosa, M.D., became the hospital’s first neonatologist, he has helped to shape the care of fragile newborns in the Tampa Bay region and beyond. He is retiring after 45 years of service at Johns Hopkins All Children’s and an immeasurable impact as a physician, educator, mentor and leader.
When he arrived at All Children’s in 1976 to establish the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), there were just four beds for newborns, and local pediatricians cared for these patients.
Within a year, Sosa had opened a 16-bed neonatal nursery and gathered a well-trained group of nurses and respiratory therapists to be part of the NICU team. A pediatric surgeon, cardiologist, neurologist and a cardiovascular surgeon provided coverage.
There was much to be done. Sosa was on call almost every single day until Jeane McCarthy, M.D., Ph.D., arrived a year later. Always ahead of his time, he soon declared “I’m going to Disney World!” and drove off in a VW camper with his family for a well-deserved week off.
An eight-bed unit for the most seriously ill NICU patients opened in late 1977. Over the decades, the unit grew in tandem with hospital expansions and renovations. In 2010, the hospital moved to its current location, with a 97-bed level IV NICU occupying an entire floor.
“Dr. Sosa had the foresight to recognize the need to recruit patients from outside St. Petersburg,” says McCarthy. “We developed an outreach program and did presentations from north Pinellas down to Naples, and inland to Lakeland and the Lake Okeechobee area. We took a team consisting of a NICU nurse, respiratory therapist and neonatologist, and later added an obstetrician. We started out teaching nursing and respiratory staff simple things like checking glucose levels and starting IVs, and over the next several years went on to teach X-ray interpretation, delivery room stabilization and intubation.”
The program continued for about three years and led to more patients being referred to the All Children’s NICU. The next step was to develop a program to transport sick children from their birth hospital to St. Petersburg.
Sosa established a relationship with the U.S. Coast Guard in St. Petersburg to provide helicopter service that allowed a NICU team to reach sick newborns at a considerable distance, allowing crucial care to begin even before an infant reached All Children’s doors. He also worked with hospital leaders to purchase an ambulance specially designed to serve as a mobile NICU on wheels.
“This was the beginning of a system of care that has saved the lives of thousands of sick newborns in Florida, nationally and internationally,” notes neonatologist Tony Napolitano, M.D., chair of pediatric medicine. “It is an essential part of Dr. Sosa’s legacy that the lifesaving care available in the All Children’s NICU would be available to critically ill newborns no matter where they lived.”
Soon Sosa had the vision to strengthen this regional approach by establishing neonatal affiliations with community hospitals in west central Florida. Today, All Children’s neonatology physicians provide care at eight community hospitals, enabling parents and their babies to remain near their home when possible. When a newborn requires services available at Johns Hopkins All Children’s, the LifeLine critical care transport team brings the infant to St. Petersburg.
A passion for education at all levels is another part of Sosa’s legacy. This includes starting the first neonatal nurse practitioner training program in Florida, creating a nursing parenting program in the NICU, and training pediatric resident physicians and neonatalogy fellows from USF and Johns Hopkins All Children’s.
The Johns Hopkins All Children’s neonatal-perinatal medicine fellowship program recently graduated its first class. In designing the three-year training program, director Joanna Machry, M.D., and associate director Aaron Germain, M.D., looked to the successful path that Sosa had forged for many years.
“He inspired our efforts through the values he taught us,” says Machry. “With that strong foundation, our only option was to continue putting building blocks in place and support the program’s growth by following his legacy.”
After nearly 40 years as director of the NICU, Sosa was appointed medical director for the hospital’s international patient services program. The program has served approximately 400 international patients with a great variety of diagnoses, mostly from Central America and the Caribbean, but also from as far as the Middle East and Europe, he notes.
As in the NICU, education was key to his approach. Over the years, Sosa helped establish a pediatric residency exchange with the University of San Carlos and a nutritional program affiliation with the University Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala. More recently, All Children’s has provided education to nurses from Central America through the Nightwatch Foundation. Dr. Sosa has also brought physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists from All Children’s to Central and South America to share knowledge with health care professionals in areas with more limited resources.
There’s no place quite like home, though.
“I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to work in this wonderful hospital in St. Petersburg,” Sosa reflects. “During my professional career here, I have enjoyed working with very talented and compassionate people, all of them dedicated to helping kids and parents.”
There are far too many of them to name individually, he notes.
Likewise, Sosa’s lasting achievements are too numerous to list. But they can be seen every day in the stellar care provided in the NICU he started and sustained for four decades.