Richard Cooke - Children's Doctor
Richard Cooke - Pioneering Children's Doctor
Professor Cooke’s name reached global fame when he cared for the Walton sextuplets who were born to Janet and Graham Walton at Liverpool Maternity Hospital in 1983. He was credited with doing much to ensure the survival of the famous Walton girls – at the time only the fourth known set of surviving sextuplets.
In fact, thousands of babies owe their lives to Professor Cooke’s research and dedication in the field of neonatal medicine, although he modestly says he was just doing his job.
Professor Cooke, 65, studied medicine in London and went on to work at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital before lecturing at Oxford University where he gained a Doctorate for his studies on the brains of new born babies.
He then spent two years working at the Sophia Children’s Hospital in Rotterdam, Holland, where he developed the use of the latest ultra-sound machine, invented in America. He used this technology to examine the brains of new born babies suffering from brain injury.
Professor Cooke said: ‘In those days we knew babies had difficulties because of brain damage but it was difficult to diagnose because you couldn’t see it. I helped to develop ultra-sound scanning as a way of examining a baby’s brain and diagnosing brain injury.
‘I experimented with the machine and tried it out on various babies and discovered you could see beautiful pictures of their brains. You could see the blood vessels pulsating and areas of damage, and so you became quite good at rapidly recognising what the changes were you were seeing and what was causing them.
‘Because I had the latest machinery I had better pictures than anybody else and I was able to present my research in Oxford. People got very excited about it, it was published in the Lancet and away it went.
‘Changes in medicine tend to come when new technology is introduced. Ultra-sound before this was very crude but this new type of scanner worked so much better. Of course the scans we’ve got now are 100 times better than the ones we had in the 70s.’
In 1980 Professor Cooke returned to the UK to become Liverpool’s first Consultant Neonatologist and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Liverpool. He set up the Regional Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Liverpool Maternity Hospital, the first of its kind in Merseyside, and for the first six years ran it single-handedly.
Fewer than three years after his arrival at the hospital, Janet Walton, expecting sextuplets, was admitted.
Professor Cooke said: ‘In the early 80s people were experimenting with various ways of managing infertility and a lot of early attempts at treatment resulted in multiple pregnancies. There were lots of triplets around then but every now and then that number was exceeded.
‘I had only been at the hospital two-and-a-half years when suddenly I was told that Mrs Walton had conceived six babies after infertility treatment. The problem was I was single-handed as the only consultant running a regional unit. It wasn’t so much a medical problem, it was a strategic one in terms of having enough equipment and staff. We managed to borrow some from other places and it all went very well.
‘They were the first lot of surviving sextuplets in the UK and the only set in the world that comprised all girls, the reason they became very well known.
‘Managing the journalists and TV was the difficulty; the medical side was quite straightforward. We had more than 70 reporters and TV people at the hospital, it was astonishing. This was a little outdated hospital at the time and it was very cramped.’
The 1980s was a very exciting time for research and innovation as it was the early stages of ventilation of premature babies. Professor Cooke was dedicated to achieving the healthy survival of these children who would benefit from his work for the rest of their lives.
At Liverpool, he encouraged the practice of administering antenatal steroids to mothers about to go into premature labour in order to give babies the best chance of healthy survival.
He said: ‘People were very reluctant to give pregnant women steroids but it has proved a harmless and a very effective way of improving the survival of a premature baby. It almost halves the death rate.’
Professor Cooke started his career in adult medicine but soon became ‘disillusioned’ with it because ‘it’s very much organ based,’ he said, adding: ‘Children’s medicine at that time offered the opportunity to do everything. You feel like a proper doctor if you can look after the whole patient.
‘I’ve always liked working with children, they are more interesting than babies because you can talk to them. I suppose my fascination with babies was physiological – how they work, what goes wrong and how you can put it right again.’
It’s just as well Professor Cooke likes children as he had four of his own – who have all now grown up and flown the nest. His eldest, Rachel, is a doctor in Australia; his son, Andrew, an animator in London; Frances is a petro-geologist working for an oil survey company in Australia and Rosie, his youngest, is studying English at Glasgow University.
He retired earlier this year and moved into his late mother’s cottage in Crowthers Hill. ‘I like the friendliness of the place,’ he said. ‘You can walk along the quay and speak to more people in five minutes than you do in a month in Liverpool. I like the water because I’ve had a sailing boat down here for a few years now.’
During his distinguished career, Professor Cooke has been president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the British Association for Perinatal Medicine, and the Neonatal Society. Today he holds the honorary title of Professor Emeritus at the University of Liverpool which gives him access to its electronic library and allows him to continue his medical research.
He is looking forward to studying for a degree in medieval history, hopefully at Exeter University. ‘It’s always been one of those things one has never had time to do.’
Professor Cooke has also developed an interest in coins, as a record of lives long past, a recent find being a coin from Lydia (now part of Turkey) dating back to 600BC. ‘It’s one of the oldest coins in the world: in those days Lydia was a Greek city state and the first to issue coinage’.
First Published August 2012 By The Dart