Dedicated to Saving the Tiniest Patients

Alvin Aaron Hackel

March 2024

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Pediatric anesthesiologist Alvin Hackel cared deeply for children—infants with heart defects, preemies the size of kittens. If his pager went off while he was out on a drive with his own kids, Hackel would stop at the next gas station and use the pay phone to guide nervous Stanford trainees through complicated anesthesia techniques before surgeries. “It felt like he was narrating the whole procedure from the car,” says his son Steven, ’84.

Portrait of Alvin HackelPhoto: Courtesy Hackel Family

Hackel, ’54, MD ’57, devoted his life not only to treating critically ill children but also to building a health care system that enveloped them. In doing so, he helped define the subspecialty of pediatric anesthesiology.

Alvin Aaron Hackel, professor emeritus of anesthesiology and of pediatrics, died September 23 after a short illness. He was 91.

The son of a tailor and a seamstress, hardworking Jewish immigrants from Poland, Hackel felt a responsibility to do something meaningful in the world. He became a physician, completing residencies in cardiology, pediatrics, and anesthesiology, and joined the lab of cardiothoracic surgeon Norman Shumway, where he assisted with early heart transplant surgeries.

Hackel’s interest in pediatric anesthesia developed during a time when no dedicated training programs for it existed. In the 1980s, ad hoc programs began cropping up, and he saw a need for standardization. “The whole specialty of pediatric anesthesia, as it exists today, can be traced back to Al,” says Elliot Krane, professor emeritus of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine, and the first chief of anesthesia at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. Hackel recruited his contemporaries to define their field, which ultimately led to certification by the American Board of Anesthesiology. And his work didn’t stop there. “I remember Al saying, ‘It’s not just the anesthesiologist,’” says Krane. “‘Children need to be put to sleep in a system that’s designed for children.’”

That system included a battery-powered transport incubator co-invented by Hackel and professor emeritus of mechanical engineering Robert Moffat, MS ’66, Engr. ’66, PhD ’67, which used a radiant heat principle adapted from the Apollo space program to keep infants warm during transport by ground or by air, even across thousands of miles. Hackel also established a dispatch center that matched babies in need with available hospital beds in about 20 minutes rather than hours, forming the foundation for the system still used in Northern California today.

“It’s interesting,” says Steven. “How many kids did he save? I think that’s a quiet part of his legacy, an unseen part—all those lives.”

Hackel’s wife, Brenda, died in January. In addition to Steven, Hackel is survived by his daughter, Jamie Hyams; son Daniel; and four grandchildren. 

Kali Shiloh is a staff writer at Stanford. Email her at kshiloh@stanford.edu.

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