"The intellectual stimulation of doing research—I can't live without it," Hansen says. "It's very exciting and an opportunity to change the outcomes for patients all over the world. It's a passion that keeps you fresh and enthusiastic and prevents you from being burned out."
Where does his project stand? Hansen and his team are submitting the ventilator for the Food and Drug Administrator approval in March, with the goal of releasing the device for use in developing countries by 2014. Hansen expects the ventilator to improve infant respiratory outcomes by 35%.
"I really decided to go into neonatology in the 1970s when if you were a premature critically ill baby, you were probably going to die," he says. "Now they grow and survive."
Hansen has seen first hand the advances in neonatology over his 40 years in the field. Last year, Hansen met with a former patient the day before Thanksgiving. Today she is in her 30s, but Hansen knows her from back when she was a preemie weighing less than two pounds. Through the years, they've kept in touch.
Outside of his work in neonatology, Hansen continues work as a builder. His current woodworking project is a kayak and he is taking lessons in preparation for its maiden voyage. Hands-on activity and a quest for knowledge have always been two of Hansen's passions. He was the first of his family to graduate from college. He majored in physics, but changed his career path to medicine in order to help others.
"I've never regretted that decision," he says. "I think we can see a day when young babies don't die of respiratory problems. Children in the U.S. rarely die of respiratory problems but in the developing world these deaths are quite common."
When that day comes, both Hansen and his patients with breathe easier.
This article appears in the December 2011 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.