How One Man Changed the Face of Healthcare as We Know It

Shelley, as close friends and family fondly called him, was raised with an appreciation for hard work and determination. His beliefs were shaped in large part by his Russian grandparents with whom he spent much time as a small boy.

His grandfather, a Waynewright (wheel maker), shared stories of the past, one of which profoundly impacted Shelley. It was the story of when his grandfather hid deep in the woods in the freezing cold to avoid being forcibly drafted into the malicious Russian army. He courageously evaded the army for days, despite the life-threatening temperatures, ultimately losing three toes from frostbite. That story, which Shelley would later refer to as “My Grandfather’s Toes,” would foreshadow his later determination.

Shelley went on to medical school, with a change in moniker to Dr. Sheldon Korones, later training at Boston City Hospital with a nationally renowned pathologist, Dr. Sidney Farber. One Thanksgiving, a friend invited him to Thanksgiving dinner with the intention of introducing him to a friend. Her name was Judith. She was a student at nearby Wellesley College. They fell in love, married three years later, and moved to Bronxville, New York. Shortly thereafter, Dr. and Mrs. Korones moved to Memphis, where he opened a pediatric clinic with then partner Dr. Gilbert Levie.

Despite his love for the practice, he had a burning desire to fulfill a greater life mission. He had been deeply struck by the unjust discrepancy in treatment plans for premature babies based on their race. Doctors across the country fought for the tiniest of preemies, when they were white, with those of color horrifyingly left to fend for themselves. It was a devastating reality that Dr. Korones simply couldn’t accept. And so he took action, and began splitting his time between the clinic and the area community hospital – Regional Medical Center.

To have a laser focus on eliminating oppression, at the very least in healthcare, and improving survival rates for premature babies regardless of color, Dr. Korones would have to make a significant life change. After consulting with Judith, Dr. Korones sold his pediatric practice to his partner for one dollar and opened the Sheldon B. Korones Newborn Center at Regional Medical Center in 1968. Judith recalls, “For a moment, Shelley was concerned about the financial impact of the career change on our family, but we both knew it was the right thing to do. Every baby’s life should be fought for, despite size or race. The money just didn’t matter.”

Through the years, Dr. Korones and his team at the Newborn Center were responsible for countless advances in neonatology, which were taught and replicated across the country. In fact, Dr. Korones played a pivotal role in developing the neonatology specialty, serving as one of the country’s few charter members. His Nurse Practitioner, Bobby Bellflower, credits Dr. Korones’ desire to staff NICU units with elite scholars in the neonatology field as having resulted in the Newborn Center and the University of Tennessee “having one of the earliest and best neonatal programs in the country.” She says that he “believed in education, research, and scholarship as a way to further the discipline and continuously improve care,” so much so that he even taught the courses that were put in place at UT until others were ready to take them over.

“Where doctors delivering two pound babies used to tell the mother’s family to call the priest, as most faced certain death, today these preemies have a 95 percent chance of survival at our Newborn Center thanks to the early work of Dr. Korones,” explains current medical director of the Newborn Center, Dr. Ramasubbareddy Dhanireddy. He adds, “Dr. Korones was ahead of his time. He took a stand for every baby, spending countless hours researching strategies for improving outcomes, and the proof is in the current 95 percent survival rate. He had no tolerance for mediocrity, and those same standards continue at the Newborn Center today.”

Kelly Bolton Jordan, former Regional Medical Center patient, emotionally explains that “Dr. Korones is responsible for changing the lives of so many people. Because he believed that every child was worth fighting for, regardless of size or race, he pursued medical advances that many did not agree with, and he did not back down. My daughter, Whitney, was born October 11, 2000 and weighed just one pound, ten ounces. Dr. Korones didn’t let his decision to fight for a life be driven by all the medical statistics and what could go wrong. He focused on what could go right. Now I have a beautiful 13-year-old daughter who understands the gift of life she was given and is already making a difference in the world. His legacy will live on in Whitney and the lives of all the children he fought to save. Without Dr. Korones and the team at the Newborn Center, I would not have Whitney.”

Dr. Korones passed away last summer, but his legacy lives on with more than 4,000 babies delivered each year at his namesake newborn center, more than 1,000 of whom are premature. “He didn’t set out to be a pioneer in the field,” recalls Judith. “He just wanted to do what’s right.” Dr. Korones went above and beyond to “do what’s right” throughout his entire career. Nurse Bellflower remembers that if a really sick baby came to the floor, Dr. Korones “would come in and stay up with me at that baby’s bedside, although I didn’t ask him to. He was truly a wonderful man.”

Dr. Dhanireddy explains that “after dramatically improving infant survival rates, Dr. Korones’ next challenge was a significant reduction in the number of premature deliveries. He wanted to avoid the trauma on mother and baby altogether. These numbers are growing steadily in our region of the country due to rising poverty and historically poor access to quality healthcare.”

As strong as our country is, “when countries across the globe are ranked by infant mortality levels, we only rank 28th, meaning there are 27 countries with fewer infant deaths. There is only so much that medicine can do; prenatal care and education make up the rest of the equation,” explains Dhanireddy.

As the only facility in the region equipped to treat these tiniest of patients, the Newborn Center needs your financial assistance on two fronts. An expanded facility is immediately needed to handle the growing demand. Today, the center is typically at full capacity. Financial support is also needed for Regional Medical Center’s community outreach programs to educate and provide support with prenatal care to the underserved in our community.

“Countless babies would not have made it to their first birthday without Dr. Korones and his life-saving work.” explains Dhanireddy.

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