Member of Adelphi University’s Profiles in Success program.
Director, Neonatal Follow-Up Program, Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island
Medical Director, Rhode Island Hearing Assessment Program
Professor of Pediatrics, The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University
Memorable Adelphi faculty: Dr. Harry Brenowitz, who taught biology. He was inspirational and very encouraging.
Involvement at Adelphi: Member of the Biology Club and German Club; Sigma Kappa; and Judicial Board Representative
Internship: Rhode Island Hospital
Residencies: Rhode Island Hospital (now Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island) and Boston Children’s Hospital
Fellowship: Providence Lying-In Hospital (now Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island)
Advice to pre-medical students: “Stay focused. Pursuing a career in medicine involves a lot of hard work, but once you become a physician, the rewards are endless.”
Over the course of her career, Dr. Betty Vohr has served as a driving force behind a number of contributions to the field of pediatrics—many of them groundbreaking.
In 1974, she established a high-risk neonatal follow-up program at Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island. Today this program stands as one of the oldest continuously running follow-up programs in the country.
Dr. Vohr, director of the program she founded 36 years ago, and her clinic staff provide supplemental support and assessment for premature and distressed newborns and their families. They evaluate the neuro-developmental, behavioral, and growth outcomes of these high-risk infants for years after they are discharged from the neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU). “Our 80-bed NICU at Women & Infants offers each family their own private room,” she says. “The single-family room design fosters an environment that is sensitive to the needs of the baby and family.”
Rhode Island, the smallest state in the United States, is not only home to the nation’s largest single room neonatal intensive-care unit—it was also the first state to establish universal newborn hearing screening.
“Around 1988 the Department of Education was looking for states in which they could have a demonstration project to see if universal hearing screening was feasible,” says Dr. Vohr, who was funded to work on this project because she had started screening the hearing of infants in the neonatal intensive-care unit in the late 1980s.
Dr. Vohr played an instrumental role in the development of the Rhode Island Hearing Assessment Program (RIHAP), which was established in 1990. Based at Women & Infants, RIHAP became the first public health program in the United States to achieve universal newborn hearing screening for all infants born in Rhode Island. After the project gained momentum, Dr. Vohr and her colleagues were invited to present the findings at an NIH Consensus Development Conference, which subsequently recommended that all babies in the United States be screened for hearing loss.
“This paved way for us to have legislation passed in our state, which became effective in 1993 for universal newborn hearing screening,” says Dr. Vohr. Newborn infant hearing screening programs, designed to identify hearing loss in infants shortly after birth, have now been implemented by all states.
For the last 30 years, Dr. Vohr has been conducting outcome studies and trials of interventions to improve the outcomes of high-risk infants, including infants with permanent hearing loss and premature infants. In addition, she has delivered hundreds of presentations on outcomes of high-risk infants, both nationally and internationally, and published over 200 manuscripts and chapters. She brings her comprehensive background in research and clinical practice to her role as a professor at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.
Throughout the course of her career, she has been a part of significant achievements and changes in medicine—all valuable experiences she can share with her students. “In 1974, we were lucky if a child weighing 1,000 grams (2 lb 3 oz) or less at birth survived, while today these same babies have a 90 percent survival rate,” she says.
“When I started as a fellow in neonatology, infants who needed a ventilator to breathe were provided with a mini negative pressure iron lung, which did not work very well. Now, there are very sophisticated ventilators that have contributed to the improved survival and outcomes,” she says. “Technology has grown in many ways and has played a tremendous role in improving the quality of care we can provide today for our smallest babies. It has been truly gratifying to have witnessed the improved outcomes of these tiny infants during my career.”
The daughter of German immigrants, Dr. Vohr and her sister, Gerda, were the first in their family to earn college degrees. “My parents were strong supporters of education,” she says. “Not going to college was not an option.”
Growing up 30 miles outside of Albany in Chatham, New York, Dr. Vohr initially applied to Syracuse, Cornell, and Rochester Universities. “My guidance counselor recommended I spread my wings,” she recalls. She took her advisor’s advice, expanding her search beyond schools in upstate New York.
It was her father’s influence that led her to Long Island. “He worked as a banquet chef at the Hotel St. George in New York City,” says Dr. Vohr, who decided attending a school near her father’s place of work would give her the opportunity to spend more time with him. Adelphi, just a short train ride from the city, was where she pursued her bachelor’s degree in biology.
Dr. Vohr, who would go on to build a career committed to research, had her first experience in this arena as a student at Adelphi. “I did my first research project on ‘Radiation Effects on the Slime Mold Physarum polycephalum,’ during my senior year at Adelphi,” she says. Her paper was so well received at the University that it went on to competition at the Northeastern Regional Beta Beta Beta Convention, where it won second prize.
“I always knew I wanted to pursue medicine,” says Dr. Vohr. “Adelphi provided me with the groundwork that prepared me for medical school.”
Dr. Vohr and her husband Tom Gidley have been married for 21 years. Following his retirement after a long and successful career as a lawyer, he decided to embark on a second career, and pursued his master’s degree and Ph.D. in English literature. Today Dr. Gidley teaches writing at the University of Rhode Island. In their spare time, Dr. Vohr and her husband love boating, traveling, and going to the theatre and out to dinner. She has three children, two step-children, and two grandchildren.