When Dr. Carol Cottrill approaches, you hear her faint, joyful hum before you see her.
She’s singing, unwittingly, while she propels herself with her feet from exam room to exam room in the wheelchair she uses because of severe rheumatoid arthritis.
As a pediatric cardiologist with University of Kentucky HealthCare, Cottrill has been caring for babies with broken hearts for 43 years. Her patients, over the decades, have found a place in hers.
“I just feel that if there are parents out there and kids out there that I can serve a need for it’s my responsibility as a physician,” said Cottrill, who is 77 and doesn’t have plans for retirement.
“She is truly a pioneer in pediatric care, and her unwavering dedication to children and their families continues to have a tremendous impact on many, many lives,” said Dr. Bernard Boulanger, chief medical officer for UK HealthCare.
Cottrill’s long career has its roots in personal pain. She was a housewife in Lexington in the late 1960s with no plans of going to college. She had four children and a house to run. But her youngest child and only daughter, Crystal, developed heart disease.
As her daughter started treatment at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Cottrill became interested in the work of the people trying to help her.
“I started wondering if I might be able to learn something to help other children the way mine was being helped,” she said.
She started taking evening classes in Cincinnati, switching child care responsibilities with a neighbor who worked second shift. She took the toughest classes first, she said.
She eventually transferred to school during the day so she could take more courses at one time. She considered, briefly, dropping out when Crystal died after Cottrill’s sophomore year.
“I had to answer the question of whether I really wanted to go back,” she said. But, she said, “You don’t abandon your goals because things didn’t turn out for you personally.” She was one of five women in her medical school graduating class of 107 at the University of Cincinnati in 1971.
She’d been practicing for about four years when she and her husband, Tom, took in their first of 30 foster children. That first boy, like most of the Cottrills’ foster children, had a medical condition.
He suffered from primary pulmonary hypertension, which at that time was a death sentence, said Cottrill. The boy, whom Cottrill met when he was 5, did well when he took his medicine. But his mother, who had 11 children, often couldn’t monitor his medicine.
The first time Cottrill met him he was blue from lack of oxygen and swollen from retaining fluid.
Cottrill took him to UK where he soon improved; he then spent a few days recovering at her home.
When Cottrill and her husband, Tom, took the boy to his home on a foggy evening, she worried she would never see him again.
A month later, when the boy started to have trouble with swelling, the 5-year-old packed the Sesame Street jumpsuit Cottrill bought him in a paper bag and started hitchhiking on the Mountain Parkway.
A trucker picked him up and took him to the local health department. The health department called Cottrill.
The boy lived with the Cottrill family until he was 11.
The day he died in 1981 he’d gone with Tom Cottrill to the family farm outside Lexington.
“He’d had a really big day,” she said. “He got to ride in the big truck and go pick up some horses,”
Cottrill insisted on an autopsy so the boy could help others like him. It might have offered clues to why that boy lived to be 11 while his brother, with the same disease, died as an infant, she said.
Dozens of kids followed, from Eastern Kentucky and around the world. This year, Cottrill cared for a Guatemalan girl with severe facial deformities.
Cottrill has been active for years with the Lexington-based nonprofit Children of the Americas, said Rosemary Vance, executive director of the group, which takes annual medical mission trips to Guatemala.
“The word I would use for Carol Cottrill is inspirational. She has boundless energy and a commitment to the things that she believes in that is unprecedented,” Vance said.
Vance has wondered when Cottrill will no longer be able to make trips to Guatemala where it is difficult for anyone to get around and an even bigger challenge for someone in a wheelchair. But, she said, Cottrill finds a way to make it work. She submitted her application to go on the 2015 mission last weekend.
“She’s amazing,” Vance said.
For her part, Cottrill plans to keep wheeling along. Each year she undergoes testing to make sure her memory is good.
She has helped some patients who were not expected to survive into adulthood live into old age. And she wants to stay with them as long as she can do it safely.
“I would feel like I am abandoning them at this point,” she said. “I don’t want to do that.”