A lifelong ally for cystic fibrosis patients
Much has changed in the 40 years since pediatrician Robert M. McKey Jr., of Coral Gables, FL, began treating children with cystic fibrosis. Most notably, patients live longer and better. "In the early 1960s, life expectancy was 2 to 9 years, depending on which center you talked to," notes McKey, who holds the Batchelor Chair for Cystic Fibrosis and Related Pediatric Diseases at the University of Miami. The median survival is now 31 years.
What hasn't changed is McKey's level of interest and energy in combating CF, the most common fatal genetic disease among Caucasians in the US. His curiosity was aroused in medical school, when he realized that CF was the ailment that had plagued a childhood friend who died in his teens.
McKey set out to learn more: As a research instructor at the University of Miami in 1960, he established the first CF clinic in the Southeast. The patient population quickly grew from three to about 200, with people coming from all over Florida, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. "So," McKey says, "we started setting up clinics all over the state."
Then there's the Sunny Shores Sea Camp in the Florida Keys, developed 20 years ago at the suggestion of one patient's parents. Another patient, Falcon Batchelor, whose father endowed the Batchelor Chair that McKey now holds, was the camp's first director. He came to McKey after his parents were told that their adolescent son wouldn't live past 17 years. Falcon graduated from college, married, and ran Sunny Shores until he died shortly before his 36th birthday.
Today, 6- to 12-year-olds enjoy a one-week session at Sunny Shores, while 13- to 18-year-olds share another. McKey examines all prospective campers, evaluates their medical histories and culture results, and handles other medical problems while camp is in session. Adult CF patients also meet for a yearly vacation, perhaps a four-day cruise or a Club Med interlude. Thanks to heavy-duty fundraising, attendees need not pay. "We just had our annual golf tournament, and we think we'll come out with $140,000," McKey says.
Barely into his 70s, the physician spends most of his time teaching and developing new programs, while still serving at the university CF clinic and maintaining his part-time private practice. Another favorite project is the Batchelor Children's Center, a pediatric research institute under construction at the university. How does he do it all? "I sleep occasionally," he says.
"He's one of the most wonderful people I've come in contact with in medicine," says Ted A. Kaplan, a pediatrician in Lake Mary, FL. "He's given lots of physicians a great head start and treats even medical students as peers." Kaplan, once a student and pediatric resident at the University of Miami, participated in the camp for several years. McKey's patients, he says, "get great comfort and support. They seem to have adopted his positive attitude and have a real fighting spirit."
McKey has a lot to feel positive about. Gazing at a bookcase where snapshots of his patients share space with those of his three grown sons, he says: "Here's Dana Munsey skiing. He's 40 years old and the new camp president. There's a young lady who had a double-lung transplant and is 31 years old. And there's Falcon Batchelor and his buddy, the 120-pound power-weightlifting champion of the State of Florida. He couldn't walk two blocks without getting short of breath, but for that instant, he was enormously strong.
"Yes," McKey says, "it's gratifying to see them all grown up."
Cindy Starr. Doctors Who Go the Extra Mile: A lifelong ally for cystic fibrosis patients.