Best days, worst days

Neonatologist supports families through life-and-death choices

Michael van Manen and patient familyNeonatologist Dr. Michael van Manen sees families on the best and worst days of their lives.
Van Manen and his highly trained colleagues provide care for about 1,800 children and their families at the neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) of the Stollery Children’s Hospital and the Royal Alexandra Hospital every year. Their stories are mostly happy ones. “We get to be with families on some of the best days of their lives as they welcome a new child into the world,” says van Manen. “But we are also with families on some of the worst days of their lives when they are faced with a serious diagnosis and have to make decisions about medical treatment for a child they may not have named, or even held yet.”
Van Manen is a neonatologist at the Stollery, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta’s department of pediatrics and a member of the John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre.
The opportunity to work with parents and newborns at a pivotal moment in their lives and help families make the best—sometimes life-and-death—decisions about care drew van Manen to neonatology after completing his residency in general pediatrics. A 2010 resident research grant from the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute gave him early support along his career path. In his residency project, he studied the development of babies with gastroschisis—a birth defect in which the baby’s intestines protrude from the abdomen.
After he completed his studies, a WCHRI recruitment award was instrumental to his joining the department of pediatrics in 2013. An innovation grant in 2014 funded an ongoing study to better understand the experiences of children and adolescents with ventricular assist devices (mechanical pumps that support function in weakened hearts). WCHRI support during critical moments in his career has helped him to build his body of research in pediatrics, and to specialize in ethics and medical technologies.
“All of my research questions come from the central issue of what should we do for children who need medical care,” says van Manen. “These are always ethical questions because at the end of the day, making decisions for someone other than yourself is the nature of ethics.”
Van Manen’s research and training has been funded by the generous support of the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through WCHRI.