Septuplets’ Chief Doctor Thrives on Multiple Challenges
The day the Frustaci septuplets were born, Dr. Carrie C. Worcester didn’t come home on time to fix dinner. Her youngest child was worried.
To calm him, the doctor’s housekeeper brought 2-year-old Chase Worcester before the television set to see his mother on the 6 o’clock news, telling the world how the six surviving premature infants were faring under intensive care in Childrens Hospital of Orange County.
When her face disappeared from the television screen, the tot began to cry, threw himself on the floor and otherwise moped, with his favorite blanket in tow, wailing that “Mommy fell into the TV set,” Worcester recalled.
“It’s been really crazy,” the director of Childrens Hospital’s newborn critical-care unit sighed as she ended a second week of frenzied activity since the May 21 birth of the now-famous babes.
“The first two days, I was here almost around the clock,” Worcester said. “Since they’ve been born, I’ve been in almost every single day.”
On her one day off that first week, her blond mane could be seen bent over a garden trowel as she planted still more brightly colored flowers in the front yard of her Santa Ana home. But every half hour or so, she was on the phone consulting with nurses in the intensive care unit just a few miles away.
5 Other Doctors on Team
“My family has been just great, and so have my partners,” said Worcester, referring to the five other physicians on the hospital’s critical-care team who have been helping to care for the Frustaci babies and as many as 19 other severely ill infants there.
Worcester, 41, said she believes she is approaching the peak of her career in one of the highest-stress specialties in medicine.
Intensive care is crisis work that must be done quickly and efficiently, without a missed beat, for patients. Many die despite heroic efforts, and it is the doctor’s job to explain how and why to the grieving family.
“I’m a precise, compulsive person, and I really like intensive care of (newborns),” Worcester said. “We all wonder how long we can go on at this pace . . . seeing so many patients die. I see myself doing it maybe 10 more years.”
On the other hand, she doesn’t see herself ever not caring for patients, particularly infants.
“I love seeing those first few minutes of life . . . . It’s really neat to know that as a doctor, if I can do something to help a sick baby, I’m giving that baby the best chance possible to have a good life.”
Caring for sick children can take a toll, however, especially when so many don’t make it.
When the sixth-born Frustaci septuplet, whom Worcester nicknamed Peanut, died after battling a severe lung disease for 64 hours, she was visibly depressed at the news conference and was seen crying later in intensive care.
“I frequently cry when my patients die,” Worcester said. “At that point, what can you do besides give their families compassion?”
Born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1943 to Eve and Jay Case, the former Carrie Case didn’t set out to be a doctor.
Scholar and Cheerleader
She was a straight-A student and cheerleader at her high school in Portland, Ore., where the family moved in the late 1950s. She went on to study science at Oregon State University, where she was both valedictorian of her class and junior prom queen.
She joined the University of Oregon doctoral program in biochemistry with a research career in mind. After two years of hard work, she discovered that she didn’t like doing experiments on rats and monkeys.
“I thought I would love doing scientific research, but I found myself always isolated in the lab, getting depressed all the time. I realized I’m a person that needs to be around people. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to get in an argument with anti-vivisectionists. It’s important work, but Carrie Worcester is not a good one to be doing it,” she said.
Medicine, a career that combines working closely with people and science, seemed a logical next step.
She left the biochemistry program with a master’s degree and transferred into the university’s medical school. She was one of five women in a class of 100.
She quickly became one of the top students there, too, recalls the classmate who became her husband, Les Worcester.
“We met over a cadaver,” Les Worcester, 40, said with a laugh. He is also a doctor, with a thriving practice in internal medicine in Long Beach, and was recently elected to the board of directors at Long Beach Memorial Hospital.
The two were just good, competitive friends who studied together for most of their six years of medical training. She usually got the better grades, but there was one exception.
Graded as ‘Too Sensitive’
“We took a surgery class together,” Carrie Worcester recalled, her color rising at the memory. “He got an A and I got a C. I was so mad.” The reason, she learned soon afterward, was that the visiting surgeon who graded her work had decided she was “too sensitive and interacted too much with the patients.”
It was the only specific reference she would make to the discrimination she encountered as a woman in medical school.
Undaunted, she redoubled her efforts and was graduated cum laude in the top 10% of her class, said her husband.
It is the same kind of unflagging determination and purpose with which she pursues her medical career today, he said.
“Carrie has always been a very gifted person,” Les Worcester said. “She always works very hard, and she’s a very organized person. She’s compulsive, but not enough to make you uncomfortable. She was a very good student, but she also had a sense of humor and was always someone you could talk to.”
The friends were two of three medical students from the University of Oregon to be accepted for a much-sought-after internship at UCLA-Harbor General Hospital in Torrance.
At the end of their internships, Les Worcester entered the Army and was stationed in Hanau, West Germany. Carrie Case followed in 1973 and became Carrie Worcester the following year.
“We realized we had so much in common, we were meant to be together,” she said.
While she tried unsuccessfully to find a job as a private physician in Germany, the Army learned she was at loose ends and virtually drafted her to take over as chief of pediatrics at the U.S. Army Corps Hospital.
Sought Challenging Field
After two years of tending to “runny noses and diaper rashes” as Capt. Carrie Worcester, Les Worcester said his wife was “really fed up with common pediatric problems. She wanted more of a challenge.”
She finished her residency at UCI Medical Center in Orange and signed on in 1978 for a two-year UCI fellowship in pulmonary diseases of newborns. The work was actually done at Childrens Hospital in Orange. She has stayed there ever since, developing her specialty as a neonatologist while caring for critically ill newborns.
In the interim, she became the mother of Jay, 6, Tiffany, 3 1/2, and Chase, 2. “Being a mother has really given me another perspective on my work,” she said, but it hasn’t persuaded her to slow down.
“I really enjoy it,” she says of the intensity of critical care work. “There is always something different going on, and you really have to be on top of things.”
Don’t be fooled by the easy banter heard among doctors and staff members, either.
“It’s a facade,” she confides. “No one in ICU (intensive care unit) work is a mellow, laid-back person. . . . All of us, my partners and I, are very serious people. We move fast and we want things done.”
Now Director of Unit
Last November, she was appointed director of the prestigious unit, one of a very few in the state. In that role, in addition to her medical responsibilities as one of six physicians for both a newborn and children’s intensive care unit, she handles administrative and organizational duties, as well as educational outreach in the medical community.
Still, she says, she manages to get home by 6 or so most evenings to cook dinner. “My whole life is not just medicine,” she insists.
But she is apparently just as driven at play as at work.
She is a gourmet cook--her husband said one “significant other” in her life is Julia Childs--and compulsive about her aerobics classes, which she attends faithfully four or five evenings a week.
She loves gardening, and takes special pride in the vast collection of colorful flowers that change with the seasons in her yard.
“The biggest crisis in your life, if you are a working woman, is losing a good housekeeper,” Worcester said. “Your free time you want to devote to your family and things you enjoy doing.”
Worcester said she considers herself fortunate that their combined income enables her to afford a housekeeper who takes over the routine tasks of managing a household and caring for her children while she pursues her career and does the homey things she likes best.
“I’m very lucky,” she said, “but there’s going to have to be a social trend toward providing quality day care so mothers can feel good about going to work.”
‘Delegates Work Well’
Since the birth of the Frustaci septuplets on May 21, her family has endured the minor interruptions. But even those have been few and far between because she is so “organized and delegates work so well,” Les Worcester said.
In addition to her medical duties, which include updating the media on the condition of the five surviving septuplets, Carrie Worcester has been besieged with requests for interviews. She has been featured on the front page of the New York Times and interviewed repeatedly on network television programs. Her face is soon to grace the cover of a new weekly photographic magazine of Time Inc.
Asked whether being in the public eye has turned his wife’s head, Les Worcester voiced an emphatic “No.”
“She’s not struck with herself. She’s already been Miss Beauty Queen, and she’s never been affected by it at all,” he said.
He said his wife was most touched by a note from her brother, Carter Case, a prominent Portland architect who is designing a house in the hills above Tustin for the Worcesters.
“He said he was really proud and told her to keep up the good work. That meant a lot to her,” Les Worcester said.
The way Dr. Carrie Worcester looks at it, the septuplets are making history in neonatology. Seven babies sharing nutrition and space in the crowded womb of one woman, Worcester believes, have developed at rates different from those of single-birth children.
“They’re so small and underdeveloped for their age,” she said. “There is just no information on this kind of birth in the (medical) literature.”
It has also been an experience dealing with one set of parents for so many children. Daily, since the Frustacis were born, she has had to deliver both good news and bad news on first six, then five babies.
“Psychologically, they don’t have any time to take it all in,” she said of the parents, Patti and Samuel Frustaci. “I think they are on an emotional roller coaster.”
Mother’s First Visit
But Worcester also sees the special moments, like the 30-year-old Riverside teacher’s first visit with her babies, who are wired up to respirators and stuck with tubes for medication and nutrition.
“All the babies opened their eyes for Patti,” Worcester recalled of her mother’s visit on the evening of May 26.
Recalls Mother’s Visit
“Even Baby B (since named James Martin), as sick as he was, opened his eyes for her,” she recalled, her eyes tearing slightly as she prepared to step into an elevator to check their condition once more before going home for the day.
Reflecting on his wife’s new-found fame, Les Worcester said, “I’m pleased as punch that all this has happened to her, that she has gotten to take care of the septuplets. It makes me proud. And, as far as I’m concerned, those septuplets couldn’t be in any better hands . . .
“She goes to bed thinking about them.”