Dr. Suzanne Rindfleisch:
Savior of AAMC's Tiniest Patients
Many pediatricians are not fond of working in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The work is often difficult, intense and heartbreaking since the newborn patients can’t say where it hurts.
For these same reasons, Dr. Suzanne Rindfleisch, a neonatologist and medical director of the NICU at Anne Arundel Medical Center, doesn’t want to work any place else.
“I love caring for the preemies,” Dr. Rindfleisch says. “They have so much potential. And because they can’t tell you what is wrong, you have to use your clinical judgment.”
AAMC’s NICU recently celebrated its 10th anniversary by inviting all of the babies who spent time in the unit since 1995 to a reunion with the doctors and nurses who helped save their lives. It was an amazing day for Dr. Rindfleisch, who has served as medical director since the unit’s opening and helped care for many of the children who returned for the event.
“Reunions like that one make all the difference,” Dr. Rindfleisch says. “They rejuvenate us because what we do in the NICU is so important in the long-term. To see them running around, screaming, and doing the things normal children do is so wonderful.”
Witnessing these former NICU babies act like rambunctious children also helps the NICU team give hope to the parents of newborns recently admitted to the NICU, some as early as 23 weeks and weighing only 11 ounces.
“It gives us the ability to say, ‘There are children just like yours laughing and living happy, healthy lives,” Dr. Rindfleisch says.
Medicine has been Dr. Rindfleisch’s passion since she was 5 years old, but she was cautious about heading straight into medical school. Instead, upon graduating from Catholic University, she decided to study to become a physician’s assistant at George Washington University. Her first day there she met her future husband, Ralph.
“He later told me he traded spots in line at orientation to be next to me,” she says. “We were engaged in six weeks and married a year later.”
While studying to be a physician’s assistant, she did a pediatric rotation and made her first visit to a NICU.
“I knew immediately it was what I wanted to do,” she says. “I ended up going to medical school knowing that I wanted to be a neonatologist and that is very rare.”
After graduating from George Washington, Dr. Rindfleisch and her husband both decided they were ready for medical school and both eventually attended the Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine. The pediatrics residents there were convinced they could change Dr. Rindfleisch’s mind about working in the emotionally rigorous environment of the NICU, but she would not be deterred.
“For the most part, you get to see very good results in the NICU,” she says. “People always describe the babies as delicate, but actually they are very tough and most do very well. They don’t have the fears that many older patients have. They have a very strong will to live; therefore, their fight is very pure.”
Dr. Rindfelisch became especially attached to one patient—an infant whose El Salvadorian mother could not care for her. Not only did Dr. Rindfleisch become attached to the newborn only in her 26th week, she ultimately adopted her.
“The staff brought her to me all wrapped up and said, ‘Look what we have for you,’” remembers Dr. Rindfleisch, who was still celebrating the successful adoption of an infant boy from Paraguay only months before. “I told them there was no way, that I had a new baby at home already.”
But the baby girl stayed in Dr. Rindfleisch’s mind and finally she asked her husband, who, of all things, was headed to the Gulf War to serve as a flight surgeon.
“He said, ‘Do whatever you want, I’m going to war,’” she remembers, laughing at the memory. “But truthfully, he really wanted a daughter.”
In 1995, AAMC asked Dr. Rindfleisch to serve as medical director of the hospital’s new NICU. Despite having no administrative experience, her references were outstanding.
“The nurses at AAMC recommended me for the position,” she says, proudly. “I reminded the administration that I had no administrative experience and they promised they would teach me. And they have. The staff and the administration could not have been more supportive.”
Martin L. Doordan, AAMC’s president, says the administration never doubted Dr. Rindfleisch’s ability.
“Suzi Rindfleisch was clearly the right leader at the right time to bring our program to the level of admiration which it enjoys today,” he says.
Life was going well for the Rindfleischs. They had adopted a third child named Chris from Guatemala, Dr. Rindfleisch was helping the AAMC NICU flourish, and her husband was working as an ER doctor. Sadly, however, tragedy struck the family in 2003 when her husband, Ralph, was killed in a plane crash.
The accident happened as the family was about to start one of their many vacations together. As was typically the case, Dr. Rindfleisch, whose schedule was more flexible than her husband’s, and her three children left ahead of Ralph, who planned to fly out later in his own personal aircraft.
“There had been a plane crash earlier that week and I told him he might want to wait, but he said it was clear,” Dr. Rindfleisch remembers. “He was always a very cautious flyer.”
When her husband didn’t show up as planned, she called his cell phone and got his voice mail. After nine hours of conversations back and forth with the airport, a man there finally told her the police were on their way to see her.
“I knew from my medical experience that when the police come to you, the news is never very good,” Dr. Rindfleisch says. “My daughter Stephanie had a feeling he was gone, but my son Louie thought that he might have survived because of his survival training.”
The family is staying strong by pulling together and taking it “one day at a time,” according to Dr. Rindfleisch.
“I told my children I would keep their lives as normal as possible,” she says. “I think we are doing okay. We’re all pretty close, so I think that helps.”
All three children are having success playing ice hockey and Stephanie, the child whose life started way too early in the NICU, has chosen one of the toughest positions on the ice. She recently made the Severna Park High School varsity ice hockey team as the backup goalie.
Dr. Rindfleisch says she would like to work in AAMC’s NICU until she retires, which she hopes will be way into her 70s.
“I hope to leave a program that continues to grow and is well respected in the community,” she says.
Since she came to AAMC, the NICU has grown from a small unit at the downtown campus to a 20-bed advanced intensive care unit in the Clatanoff Pavilion in Parole where they are caring for infants of all gestations and medical needs.
And still, that is not enough space. With AAMC ranked second in the state for number of births, more babies are coming to the NICU for care.
In response, the AAMC Foundation has launched a $2 million capital campaign to expand the NICU to a 26-bed unit with private rooms and greatly improve the technology used to care for the young patients. The campaign is half way there already, thanks to a $1 million donation by Annapolis residents Suzanne and Albert Lord.
“I just see NICU continuing to grow and grow,” Dr. Rindfleisch says. “Most of the families who come to the Women’s and Children’s Unit to have their babies are so impressed with the care that our reputation is growing through simple word of mouth.”