Dr. Ed Liechty, “pioneer in neonatology,” closes out distinguished career

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06/29/2021

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Riley physician/scientist led the way on many research efforts that saved the lives of countless premature babies.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

Dr. Scott Denne is telling the story of the time his friend and colleague Dr. Ed Liechty hit a long drive on the golf course that took down a goose flying overhead.

“We thought it was dead,” Dr. Denne said to those gathered for Dr. Liechty’s virtual retirement party June 17. “It staggered around and finally flew off. It’s an amazing feat to hit a bird out of the sky.”

Especially when you’re not trying to.

The encounter likely left the golfers stunned as well, but it makes for a good story about Dr. Liechty’s golf prowess and his ability to drive a point home with few words.

Considered a “pioneer in neonatology” by his colleagues at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, he is officially retiring June 30 after a 34-year career marked by scientific discovery, global health advancement and the kind of moral leadership that inspires everyone to do better.

He turns 69 on June 29.

“I’ve known Ed since I was a resident and have learned that he is soft-spoken, but when he speaks I should listen because he always has something insightful to share,” said Riley neonatal-perinatal medicine division chief Dr. Laura Haneline. “He is an incredible clinician, scientist, role model, teacher and colleague.”

“Fundamentally good and decent” is how Dr. Denne describes his friend, with whom he teamed up for research into nutrition and metabolism in premature infants. That collaboration exceeded his expectations in multiple ways, he said.

“It’s so nice to have had a full career as I have with Ed as a close colleague … to be able to work with someone you can look up to as an example. He goes about it in a very quiet way, but he does in fact lead the way as an example for all of us.”

MOM WAS A NURSE

Ed Liechty was not quite 5 years old when his father died, leaving his pregnant mom to raise him and his siblings. The family moved from Nebraska to Goshen, Indiana, to be closer to relatives, then moved to Berne, Indiana, a few years later when his widowed mom – a nurse – remarried.

He had an inkling that he wanted to be a general pediatrician in a small to medium-size town, but life led him down a different path after graduation from Goshen College. He completed medical school at IU and did his residency and fellowship at Riley Hospital.

“When I looked at residencies as a fourth-year med student, I was pretty sure I would hate neonatology … but the more I worked in the neonatal unit, the more I enjoyed it,” he said. He flirted with the idea of working in hematology and oncology, but the tiny preemies won him over.

That and the mentorship of Drs. Jim Lemons and Richard Schreiner, both former neonatology division chiefs who helped recruit Dr. Liechty back to Riley from West Virginia University School of Medicine, where he spent four years after his fellowship.

Told that Dr. Lemons described him as “one of the smartest people I know,” the unassuming physician quipped, “You know Dr. Lemons. He says that about everybody.”

To be fair, Dr. Lemons said Dr. Liechty has surprised many with his knowledge on a host of different topics.

“You don’t realize the depth of his knowledge until it surpasses your questions,” said Dr. Lemons, who also describes his colleague as compassionate, grounded in his faith and a researcher at heart.

Of Dr. Liechty and recently retired neonatologist Dr. Bill Engle, both of whom Dr. Lemons mentored during their early years at Riley, he said this:

“They’ve been so unwavering in their commitment and dedication to Riley, but really to enhancing the quality of care, which has changed so much over their careers. I look at them and I think about how superb they are. At their heart they are such good people. I think that’s what I cherish most.”

MEDICAL BREAKTHROUGH

Dr. Liechty divided his time between clinical work and research over the years, both here and in Africa, but also had a firm grasp of the business side of things, something he had to learn from the ground up when the department had only a half-dozen providers. Now there are more than 40.

He is perhaps best known for his work on the revolutionary surfactant drug treatment to improve lung capacity in premature infants. He and Riley Hospital were the lead author and institution in a large study involving many medical centers back in the late 1980s.

After the study was published in 1991, surfactant became the standard of care all over the world for preterm infants with Respiratory Distress Syndrome, Dr. Lemons said, leading to a significant decline in deaths of premature infants.

When pushed, Dr. Liechty will acknowledge his contributions to advancements in fetal and maternal medicine.

“They’re not Nobel Prize-type things, but incremental things,” he said.

Parents of babies whose lives were saved because of his commitment to better care likely would disagree with his tendency to downplay his contributions, but that is his way.

His wife of 46 years, Mary, has known “Ed” since he was about 8 years old, she said, and he’s never been one to call attention to himself, especially as a physician.

“I’ve seen a lot of different iterations of Ed and I’ve rarely seen a doctor,” she said. “I know he is one … but Ed usually left Dr. Ed at the office. When introduced to people outside of medicine, they often didn’t know he was a physician. He’d find something else to talk about.”

She recalled the time they were at a Little League game and a child got hit hard by a ball. Her husband ran out to the field to render aid, and people yelled, “Ed, don’t touch him until a doctor gets here!”

“They had no idea he was a physician, and he’d been on the board for a year,” Mary Liechty laughed. “As a family, we always appreciated that Ed never brought work home, and by that I mean he never brought work anxiety home. When he was home, he was with us.”

The father of three and grandfather of five won’t get bored in retirement, his wife said. He has plenty of hobbies – golf, gardening, fishing, hiking and watching British mysteries, to name a few.

“I’m going to look forward to more time with my friend,” she said of her husband. “I want to thank all of you for being his family away from us.”

GLOBAL HEALTHCARE

Dr. Liechty got his first taste of medical mission work while a student at Goshen College. He traveled to Haiti, volunteering for a semester. As a medical student, he and his wife returned to Haiti and worked in a rural hospital for three months. And in 2003-04, he and his wife spent a year in Kenya providing clinical care and teaching at Moi University, inspired by the work that Dr. Lemons was doing there to support women’s and children’s health.

He has returned to Kenya at least 20 times since then, he said, in support of international research he’s been a part of for the past 15 years.

He helped establish a pediatric residency program at the medical school in Eldoret, Kenya, and continues to be involved in collaborative clinical research in developing countries, serving as primary investigator for the Global Network for Women’s and Children’s Health Research, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health through 2023.

“Ed’s analytical mind, perseverance and creativity facilitated his success as a physician-scientist,” Dr. Haneline said, adding that he’s been a prolific writer, contributing dozens and dozens of book chapters, clinical papers, scholarly articles and research manuscripts during his tenure. In 2017, he was named distinguished professor emeritus at IU School of Medicine.

His memberships include: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Pediatric Society, American Physiological Society, Indiana Neonatal Society, Midwest Society for Pediatric Research, Perinatal Research Society, Sigma Xi Research Society and the Society for Pediatric Research. He serves as chair of the AAP Section on Neonatal and Perinatal Medicine Coding Committee. He was named a Fulbright Scholar in 2003.

“The impact of Ed’s contributions to training physicians in Kenya has benefited thousands of children and will continue to have an impact for years to come,” Dr. Haneline said.

For his part, Dr. Liechty said he couldn’t have accomplished near what he did without the support of his family and his colleagues both here and in Kenya.

“I want to thank the nurse practitioners, the staff nurses and the RTs and all the people who worked in the Riley NICU,” he said. “It’s been a great ride.”

Speaking of great rides, a new Riley wagon has been christened with Dr. Liechty’s name by the Riley Children’s Foundation, and the Neonatology Division has funded a neonatology emeritus lectureship honoring him, as well as recently retired Dr. Bill Engle and other faculty.

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org