Saturday, May 27, 2006

Two Worlds Away, The Good Doctor Will See You

Whether it's Iraq, Afghanistan or Central/South America, there are lots of stories in international news which leave us confused, disgusted, exasperated and despondent. One story, however, reminded me that there are humans -- good ones -- in the strangest places.

The story is described in an article hosted on from AP; Dr. Samuel Weinstein, a 43-year-old cardiac surgeon who is chief of pediatric cardio-thoracic surgery at Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, was on a charity trip in El Salvador when he was advised there was an 8-year-old patient with a failing aortic (heart) valve. He and his team prepped the patient and, when they opened him up, they opted to remove his aortic valve, which was failing badly, with his pulmonary valve; subsequently, they replaced the pulmonary valve with an artifical one. In plain English, the aortic valve is the connecting valve between the heart and the aorta, which is the body's main artery (the senior blood vessel by which blood travels from the heart to the body). Hence, if the aortic valve fails, the entire body fails to receive enough blood; eventually, the lungs cannot process air quickly enough and they accumulate fluid, resulting in pneumonia-like symptoms and/or extreme patient fatigue.

Dr. Weinstein had completed a good portion of the surgery -- twelve hours worth -- when he noticed the patient was bleeding excessively. Since the surgery was performed in Bloom Hospital in El Salvador, the team didn't have access to the same types of medicines as they would in New York, and thus they couldn't administer medication to stop the bleeding quickly enough. It was at that point when they also realized that the patient had blood type B-negative, which is the second-rarest blood type (AB-negative is the rarest). Dr. Weinstein, it turns out, is B-negative, so he decided to stop the surgery for 20 minutes while he donated a pint of his own blood.

The patient survived the surgery and subsequently left the hospital, but not before having lunch with Weinstein. Dr. Weinstein was quoted as saying "I'm getting the attention because I'm the one who gave the blood, but there wasn't anybody on the team - I mean anybody, the nurses, the clerks - who wouldn't have done it."

It's probably true that anyone on his team would have donated blood, and it's not as if Dr. Weinstein donated a kidney to his patient. However, what he did -- without hesitation, I would guess -- was save a life on the operating table as well as away from it. In this day and age of HMO's, corporate-sponsored and -controlled healthcare, and hour-long waits to see doctors, it's nice to know there are doctors -- some, if not many -- will do whatever possible to save patients' lives, even if they live two worlds away.

I was born with a heart murmur and was advised in my early 20's that I would likely need to have my aortic valve replaced. When I was 32, over New Year's weekend, I wound up sick in bed and was advised that the valve had been failing and I needed to have surgery less than two months later. The initial diagnosis from my then-doctor was that I had pnuemonia. It turned out the valve was failing and the only one to catch that aspect of it was a pulmonary doctor who heard the valve and investigated. Without his perseverance, who knows when -- or if -- the valve would have been discovered before it was too late?

In short, there are plenty of stories about shitty doctors who don't do everything they can for their patients; when I come across a story about a doctor who did everything he could possibly do to save a patient, especially one with a failing aortic valve, I wanted to share it, if for no other reason than to remind people that the world, sometimes, isn't as shitty as it is usually portrayed.

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