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VOL. 124 | NO. 99 | Thursday, May 21, 2009

Memories of Jumping In the Hospital Elevator

By Tom Wilemon

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Tom Wilemon

Watching the new UT-Baptist Research Park go up against the Memphis skyline, I often think of the hospital that once stood there.

I think of a toy truck, painted bright yellow like the construction equipment there now, rolling across the floor of the intensive care unit’s waiting room. I think about riding the elevators and anticipating the right moment to jump to feel the thrill of gravity.

As a 4-year-old child, I didn’t realize how dire the situation was.

We celebrated Christmas in a waiting room of the old Baptist Memorial Hospital in 1969 because my mother would not leave my 19-year-old brother. He was paralyzed and in a coma that would last for 45 days after crashing his Dodge Coronet into a ravine along U.S. 72. My mother, Betty, had even been there a year earlier contending with her own illness.

Covering the health care and biotech beat for The Daily News, I can’t help but think about how Memphis, its physicians, nurses and medical innovations have affected my family. I didn’t grow up here, but as is true for thousands of other Mid-Southerners, it was the only city I knew.

Memphis was and still is the place that families from towns barely big enough to have a stoplight come to for the best medical attention available and to pray for miracles.

My mother came to the city in 1968 because blood clots were forming in her legs. Dr. Robert Miles performed surgery on her, inserting a vena cava strainer to keep those blood clots from going to her lungs. The strainer, which became known as the Miles clip, was his invention and one that was used on President Richard Nixon’s leg.

The next year, mother was back at the hospital with Tim after his car accident. Dr. Edward Kaplan was his neurosurgeon. I’m not sure what type of medical procedure Kaplan did for my brother, but I do know that my mother is still grateful for Tim’s survival. He turned 59 in January.

One thing that has changed about Memphis 40 years after spending Christmas in that hospital waiting room is this city is no longer just a regional center for medicine.

Doctors and scientists here are making discoveries and creating innovations for people all over the globe. At St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Richard Webby and Robert Webster have traced the origins of influenza viruses back to birds and swine and are developing vaccines through a partnership with the World Health Organization.

In other research related to influenza, Jerry Aldridge Jr. and Webster have identified cell types that can damage lungs in a severe influenza pandemic, like the one that occurred in 1918, and discovered an existing diabetes drug can reduce these cell types. The influenza research is just one part of the continuing work at St. Jude.

Scientists at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center have discovered new drug therapies and other medical innovations. Professor Duane Miller received 16 patents for drug discoveries from 2006-2008, some of which are on the verge of receiving approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Professor Herb Zeman, now retired, invented imaging technology that allows health care professionals to see blood vessels beneath the skin. This technology is already on the market. Miller and Zeman are only two of several professors with patents for medical technologies.

Other research is under way in the orthopedic companies based in Memphis. Clinical studies also are going on at hospitals. One such study is being conducted at the Regional Medical Center at Memphis. People with brain injuries are being given concentrated salt intravenously to lessen swelling in the brain.

Hopefully, this will allow more people to survive brain injuries, as my brother did.

I’m sure thousands of other Mid-Southerners have similar memories about how medical innovations helped miracles occur. They have also ridden the hospital elevators.

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