Local pediatric surgeon pioneered his field

Dr. Dick Ellis book on W.L. Cook Children's Hospital

This story on Dr. Dick Ellis appeared in the Fort Worth Business Press in the July 15, 2011 issue. Ellis died Sunday, July 12 at the age of 92.

  • Author/Byline: Carolyn Poirot
  • Section: Health Care

Dr. Dick Ellis has sewn up thousands of cuts, removed hundreds of tumors and intestinal obstructions, fixed all kinds of complex congenital defects, including ambiguous genitalia, and saved the lives of dozens of babies born with esophageal atresia.

“We did most things except bones, eyes and brains,” Ellis said in a recent interview at the old W.I. Cook Children’s Hospital. “Our first claim to fame was repair of esophageal atresias (incomplete development of the esophagus, which prevents food from entering the stomach and allows saliva to enter the lungs) in newborns. That’s a condition incompatible with life. If you don’t operate on them immediately, they die.”

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Ellis has been a mainstay in Fort Worth pediatric care for the past four decades, pioneering multiple areas of care and becoming one of the most well-known pediatric surgeons around.

When he arrived in July 1965 as Tarrant County’s first pediatric surgeon and first subspecialist of any kind limiting his practice to infants and children, Ellis spent long hours in the emergency room.

“When I first started, I was living in this ER to build a practice,” he said, fondly pointing out where the emergency room was once located on the north side of the first floor of the building at 1212 W. Lancaster Ave.

“Not much major trauma, but I’ve sewn up cuts in thousands of kids … I had an ER tech who would meet me at the door with the right size suture and anything else I was going to need in his pocket when I was called in for an emergency in the middle of the night,” Ellis recalled. “I once sewed up nine different patients, one after the other, without ever leaving this room.”

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Hernia repairs, appendectomies and placement of complicated catheters in premature newborns took up a lot of his time. Major surgery to correct pectus excavatum, a congenital deformity of the chest wall resulting in a sunken sternum or breast bone, became an early specialty. Ellis was co-author of several scientific papers on various ways of doing that surgery.

“We did 291 pectus excavatum corrections, but it is not done nearly as often today. The chest has to be really caved in and causing breathing problems to make it worthwhile to the young child,” he said.

What makes pediatric surgery a bona fide specialty are conditions unique to children, including several kinds of tumors, such as neuroblastoma (a brain tumor) and Wilms’ tumors (kidney), according to Ellis. “We have made a lot of progress with those. When we started there was only about a 30 percent success rate with Wilms’. Now it’s probably 95.”

He says one of the best changes in pediatric surgery is the fact that neurosurgeons, in particular, are now using MRI during surgery to see exactly where they are working and how much tissue needs to be removed.

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The only possible drawback to pediatric surgery is that there is just no time to really get to know most patients. Most are in and out of the surgeon’s care quickly with life-long or what Ellis calls “65-year cures.”

You never see them again, he says.

Still, Ellis has hundreds of stories about young patients, their parents and the pediatricians in Tarrant County. He has included some of the best in his new book, W.I. Cook Children’s Hospital: The Middle Years.

We sat in the atrium of the beautiful old hospital, which is now owned and occupied by Health South Rehabilitation Hospital, and stories tumbled quickly and enthusiastically from his memory – of memorable patients, interesting physicians and famous people he has met in his travels to every continent and more than 100 countries, as well as details about the construction and early days of Cook Children’s Hospital.

He’s a great storyteller.

One of his most memorable patients was a baby born in Fort Worth in late December 1972 to a couple from Thailand who were studying at the University of Texas at Arlington. The baby was premature and had a number of complex congenital defects, including a hole in the wall between the two pumping chambers of his heart, esophageal atresia, a missing right kidney, several incomplete sacral vertebrae, no rectum and a bowel that opened into his bladder.

“His brain was fine, so as a newborn we corrected the esophagus problem and did a temporary colostomy. When the baby was about six months, we did a ‘pull through operation’ to create a rectum and the colostomy was closed. Unfortunately the family had to go back to Thailand before the heart defect could be corrected, and the baby developed an infection, apparently unrelated to the other problems, and died before the heart surgery could be done.”

Ellis stayed in contact and visited the family twice during trips to Bangkok in the late 1970s. On one trip they took him to see the famous bridge over the River Kwai.

Ellis estimates that he and his wife, Kay, have spent a total of eight to nine months on small sailing ships. He served as ship’s doctor on 20 cruises in the Aegean, Caribbean and Mediterranean seas and on a 35-day “Lost Islands of the Atlantic” cruise that took them from the Canary Islands to the Falklands.

“We never had a death at sea, but I had to evacuate an emergency patient in Martinique once. I saw mostly nausea, vomiting and upper respiratory infections and a fair number of scrapes and cuts. I had one patient with a gait problem who drank a little too much one night and fell and broke his arm,” he said.

Small, 60- to 80-passenger sailing vessels have “hospitals” the size of four or five telephone booths put together, but they are always well supplied, and Ellis recalled the captain of one ship holding a passenger’s head while he stitched up a rather severe cut.

“It took 30 or 40 stitches, but it healed beautifully,” Ellis said.

He retired in 1998, but the energetic physician still makes grand rounds at the “new” Cook Children’s Hospital most Tuesday mornings. He still attends all the national meetings of the American Pediatric Surgery Society and the Surgical Section of the American Academy of Pediatrics, both of which he has served as president.

He is an amateur radio operator and a founding member of the Wednesday Wine Committee at the Fort Worth Club.

Ellis graduated from Baylor University in Waco in 1949 and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston in 1952. He served in the U.S. Air Force stationed near London for 21 months and completed his pediatric surgery fellowship at Columbus Children’s Hospital in Ohio.