Alone in a chemistry lab at the University of Chicago in April 1989, PhD student Andy White prepared to scrape the remnants of a salt-like powder out of a glass filter onto a scale.
Wearing a lab coat, protective glasses and gloves, he raised the filter with his left hand and scraped crystallized cubane sodium carboxylate from it with a small metal spatula.
The next thing that happened changed his life forever.
“Scrape, scrape, scra-BOOM!” he recalls hearing. “I blew up the laboratory. There were fires set, windows blown out …”
White was thrown to the floor, where he was found writhing in a puddle of liquid he later learned was his blood. Second-degree burns covered a third of his body. His goggles destroyed in the blast, he couldn’t see. He could barely hear. He couldn’t feel the fingers on his left hand and assumed they’d been blown off. He screamed and screamed — but still somehow managed to alert his principal investigator that a paper due the next day was probably going to be late.
Over the next nine days in a hospital, White tried to lie still as doctors worked to heal his burned skin and restore his vision. As clamps forced White’s eyes open, the doctors slowly, painstakingly plucked minute bits of glass and chemical residue from his eyeballs. And as they restored his sight, White recalls with a slight grin, “they brainwashed me.”
Among them was an ophthalmologist with a calm, soothing voice that White remembers well. “He would say, ‘You know, a PhD in chemistry is very interesting — I guess you want to do research. But you know, you can do research with an MD, you don’t have to have a PhD. Why don’t you go to med school?’ ”
Perhaps it was the doctor’s comforting demeanor. Or perhaps, White quips, it was the Demerol they gave him to take off the edge.
“But that experience,” White says, “pushed me into medicine.”
Twenty-five years later, White is the one reassuring patients and, just as likely, freshly minted doctors. The recently named Philip R. Dodge, MD, Scholar in Pediatrics, White directs the Pediatric Residency Program at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
An associate professor of pediatrics, he also co-directs Washington University School of Medicine’s Hereditary Hemorrhagic Telangiectasia (HHT) Center of Excellence, one of a handful of centers nationwide that treats the genetic disease. Also called Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome, HHT is a disorder of the blood vessels that affects about one in 5,000 people in the United States, though about 90 percent of those who have it are undiagnosed.
As head of the pediatric rheumatology division at the School of Medicine and Children’s Hospital, White also sees children with autoimmune diseases such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis or scleroderma, and patients with medical mysteries he seeks to solve.
“Andy is the consummate clinician-educator,” says Bradley L. Schlaggar, MD, PhD, head of the Division of Pediatric and Developmental Neurology. The two met 20 years ago at orientation for their pediatric residency. “He is a superb physician with an astounding fund of knowledge as well as capacity to connect with patients and their families. And he is deeply devoted to the pediatric residency program, which he inherited from one of the giants in pediatrics, Dr. Jim Keating.”
With his multifaceted roles, White doesn’t doubt he chose the correct course in life, even though the path he first set out on was so different.
The road to medicine
White was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but spent most of his childhood in San Antonio. His father is a gynecologic oncologist. His mother runs a scuba diving business and also works as an oncology research nurse.
He didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps, so he majored in chemistry at Brandeis University in Boston. After graduation, White took a job teaching chemistry at an all-girls Catholic school in San Antonio. A budding rock musician on the side, he wore his hair long, rivaling the length of some of the students’ tresses.
When he decided to further his education in chemistry, he headed for Chicago, where his passion for music also was turned up a notch. He had played in bands before – Andy White and the Red All Over, the Clay Penguins, Occasional Sax among them. But a group he fronted in Chicago, Absolute Zero, not only landed paying gigs, it had opening bands that went on to make it big, the Indigo Girls among them.
The band had allure … or at least a good shtick. White had a deep appreciation for big, ‘80s hair and stage wear that included a red, crushed-velour tuxedo jacket he’d scored in a Boston thrift shop.
Despite his love of music, White chalked his musical successes up to sheer luck and continued to focus on chemistry — until the lab explosion. That marked a turning point.
“I came out of the hospital thinking, ‘You know, I can do research with an MD degree, I don’t have to have a PhD. Maybe I should be healing people instead of getting injured,’ ” he recalls.
He made one more stop before taking the leap to medical school, working in New York for the Stanley H. Kaplan Educational Center, where he helped redesign Kaplan’s course for the new MCAT. By that point, all signs pointed to medical school. In the fall of 1990, he enrolled at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
On his first day of medical school, he met his future wife, Hilary Babcock, now an associate professor of medicine at Washington University. The two “couples matched” on Match Day in 1994 and landed in St. Louis. They’ve been here ever since.
White completed his internship and residency at Children’s Hospital and a fellowship in immunology and rheumatology at the School of Medicine before joining the faculty in 1999.
He and Babcock have three children – twins Hannah and Jackson, 16, and Carter, 8.
The boys in particular share with their father a love of playing basketball – a hobby that began for White in graduate school. He has coached his three kids’ basketball teams. But his fondness for the game is most evident on Friday nights, when he and friends from work and his neighborhood play basketball in a grade school gym. White has been arranging the games for nearly 20 years.
“On any given night, you could have on the court a pediatrician, a cardiologist, an internist, physicians from the emergency room and critical care, and medical students, residents and fellows of various specialties,” he says. “It’s probably the safest place in town.”
Unless you happen to be guarding White. He finds unadulterated joy in flustering (read: fouling) opponents.
“People look at me and think, ‘He’s a fat old man with a gray beard,’ and they assume that I’m slow,” White says. “I’m not good at basketball, but I’m not slow. Others would probably describe me as a bull in a china shop. I have no innate basketball skills, but I do enjoy getting people riled up.”
Says Schlaggar, his longtime friend and colleague: “There’s no question that he is well known for his irreverent sense of humor and ever-changing facial hair. And I have plenty to say about Andy’s basketball ‘skills.’ ”
Even greater than his affinity for basketball (and aggravating opponents) is fish — in particular, Loricariids, which are better known as plecostomus, a type of freshwater, suckermouth catfish.
As he has done with basketball and music (he still plays), White immerses himself in his interests. He not only collects fish, he has 18 tanks in his home, some of which are 8 feet long. He shows fish, sells fish and even writes about fish in publications such as Tropical Fish Hobbyist and Amazonas magazine and for the website Planet Catfish.
“At one point, I had more fish publications than medical publications,” White says with a laugh.
His family and his wide range of interests make him better at his job, he believes. They allow him to escape and recharge, and they — along with his energy, outgoing personality and quick sense of humor — make it easier for him in recruiting, advising and training residents.
“I get good people,” White says of the 96 residents under his charge at any given time. “I lure them here with the quality of the program.”
But those who know him say it’s more than the quality of the program that draws and then nurtures such talented residents.
“Andy White is in many ways like Philip Dodge, the former Department of Pediatrics chairman (1967-1986), whose endowed scholar award Andy holds,” says Alan L. Schwartz, MD, PhD, the department’s current chairman and the Harriet B. Spoehrer Professor of Pediatrics. “Andy is a positive Pied Piper for trainees. They eagerly follow him with his keen teaching skills and gift for clinical diagnosis. Andy has an enthusiasm for pediatric medicine that is contagious.”
Adds White’s wife, Hilary Babcock, MD: “He has always been really good at forging connections with people quickly. People enjoy working with him and for him because he’s a good teacher, he has a good outlook, and he bonds with patients.
“One of the reasons he likes pediatrics and working with children is because kids are funny and always have a sense of humor,” Babcock continues. “You could be sewing up a kid’s eyebrow and make a joke and they still laugh. Kids are very forgiving and have a different approach, and I think Andy likes that a lot.”