Dr. John Bowman, the UM researcher who pioneered a way to save infants from Rh disease in the 1970s, would face his match with newborn Naomi Hinz, a particularly complex case.
“I tend to dig my heels in on everything. My siblings wouldn’t say I was stubborn though—they’d say I was spoiled,” Naomi, now 45, jokes from her home in Maine. “I’m lucky to be alive. Dr. Bowman and his team, they could have given up. But they didn’t.”
He would call them “my babies,” these infants with a protein on the surface of their red blood cells that doesn’t match their mother’s, triggering the mother’s immune system to attack the fetus. Bowman [MD/49] established the Winnipeg Rh Institute and in 1973, after a decade of tireless work, made a lifesaving breakthrough: the vaccine WinRho (Win, for Winnipeg).
But peculiarities in the blood of Naomi’s mother, Barb Hinz, meant she needed more than the vaccine to save her three-pound baby, born nine weeks early, jaundiced and anaemic. To survive, Naomi needed the protocol of transfusions Bowman developed.
It was then Barb saw the doctor’s grit. She recalls how he stood over the sickest patient he’d ever had, having already given Naomi four blood transfusions while she was in uterus, once with his own blood. And he was about to perform another.
Bowman promised all the nurses and doctors a champagne party if Naomi pulled through, and a few days before her release he brought 25 bottles into the hospital. It was the only such fête Bowman had for a patient, but surely many others have toasted him: In Canada alone, WinRho saves more than 1,600 babies every year.
“It was a gift he gave us from his life’s work. You can never forget that,” Barb says.
There is still more to do, however. Rh disease continues to haunt the developing world, claiming 100,000 annually. Following Bowman’s death in 2005, many continue his legacy of improving child health, including the Winnipeg Rh Institute Foundation, which endowed $1 million to UM in 2019 to help create the Dr. John M. Bowman Chair in Pediatrics and Child Health. The inaugural chairholder, Dr. Kristy Wittmeier [BMRPT/02, MSc/05, PhD/10], promises to follow in Bowman’s footsteps by applying the scientific method to clinical practice, so children don’t have to fight as hard as Naomi had to for a foothold.
“So many kids wouldn’t have made it without Dr. Bowman. His life’s work will carry on, helping more people for years to come,” Naomi says. “That’s absolutely amazing.”