Kevin Cody

Torrance Memorial’s Schwartz leads modernization of neonatal unit

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Dr. Jerry Schwartz, head of Torrance Memorial’s neonatology department. Photo by Esther Kang

by Esther Kang

Inside his quiet office on the fifth floor of Torrance Memorial’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Dr. Jerry Schwartz recalled in a soft voice a delivery last Christmas Eve that was unprecedented in his 29-year career as the department’s medical director.

Schwartz, who is Jewish, works a 24-hour shift every Christmas. On this particular evening, a mother began experiencing the acute onset of severe fetal distress. The fetus’ heart rate was dropping to dangerously low levels. As nurses wheeled the mother into the operating room for an emergency C-section, he learned the situation was more dire than usual. The mother was having an amniotic fluid embolism, a rare condition during childbirth when the amniotic fluid enters the mother’s bloodstream. The result can be multiple organ failures.  

Within moments of entering the operating room, the mother went into full cardiac arrest. While the code blue team began performing CPR on one side of the table, Schwartz and his labor and delivery staff performed a C-section on the other side. There were about 18 people in the operating room.. It was like a ballet, Schwartz said.

“The room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Not a word was spoken.”

The baby was born without a heartbeat and required a full resuscitation,. The mother, after being closed up, was wheeled into intensive care.

“Both survived,” he said. “I’d never seen this in 29 years, a full maternal arrest leading to fetal distress.”

Schwartz prides himself on the efficacy of his multi-specialized neonatal team. The team includes six board-certified neonatologists, approximately 50 labor and delivery nurses and several in-house obstetrician-anesthesiologists. During his nearly three decades at the helm of the department, the Palos Verdes resident has bolstered the unit’s resources to include advanced technologies not commonly found in community hospitals. These include high-frequency ventilators, non-invasive nasal mechanical ventilation equipment, inhaled nitric oxide therapy and therapeutic hypothermia. These resources enable the team to treat most high-risk newborns.

Soon, Torrance Memorial’s neonatal unit will move to the newly completed, $450 million Melanie and Richard Lundquist Tower. The tower’s new neonatal unit includes 23 private rooms with around the clock amenities for entire families and rooms designed for sick newborns. Proceeds from the 31st annual “Honda Evening Under the Stars” Wine Festival on Saturday, August 26 will help underwrite the new neonatal unit.

Schwartz, 60, was born in Philadelphia. His father, a Navy Air Force engineer, and his mother, a junior high school teacher, raised him to be a doctor, he said. He graduated first in his pre med class at La Salle University and went onto the University of Maryland’s medical school. In 1989, following his pediatric residency at Saint Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia, he moved to Southern California to accept a combined fellowship in neonatology and pediatric pulmonology at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.

“After the fellowship, I stayed in Southern California,” he said. “It’s a hard place to leave.”

Following a brief stint at Tanzania Regional Medical Center, Schwartz answered an ad seeking a medical director for neonatology at Torrance Memorial. He was just 31 years old when he was offered the job. Under his direction, the hospital has received about 10,000 babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

“Our hospital invests  lot of money in making sure our babies get what they need,” Schwartz said. “And that’s based on what we tell them, using evidence-based research. I was always passionate and aggressive in bringing state-of-the-art neonatal intensive care. That’s why they hired me.”

Schwartz moved to Palos Verdes in 1989. He has three daughters, ages 26, 20 and 17. The youngest is a senior at Palos Verdes High School.

“I felt Palos Verdes had the best schools in the country,” he said. “It was beautiful, low crime, great sense of community. I went there for all the usual reasons people move to PV.”

Schwartz is a supporter of the Palos Verdes Education Foundation and the Palos Verdes Junior Women’s League, where he volunteers his piano chops at some of their events. He was an auction item a few years ago for a Christmas party. His primary instrument, he said, was the trumpet, which he began playing in second grade. He played with local jazz quintets and the Philadelphia Jazz Band, but when he received his fellowship in his late 20s, he gave up the instrument due to lack of time.

In October, some 300 people will gather for the annual NICU staff and grad reunion. Schwartz said the celebration is his favorite night of the year.

“We get to see the children grow up,” he said. “There are a lot of families that were not critical, but there are also families who had extremely premature twins or triplets and you just see them running around the room.”

“One thing about being a neonatologist is that every time our in-house phone rings, it could be an ordinary call or it could be the start of something extremely intense,” Schwartz said.

The 31st annual “Honda Evening Under the Stars” Gourmet Food and Wine Festival takes place Saturday, Aug. 26 from 6 to 9:30 p.m. at the American Honda campus in Torrance. Saxophonist Kenny G. will perform. Tickets are $200 per person, or $300 per pair until July 31. For more information, visit facebook.com/eveningunderthestars. PEN

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