October 22, 2014
When the AIDS epidemic was just beginning and we knew very little about its transmission, I was called upon to do spinal surgery on an HIV positive patient with a spinal fracture. I was not the first surgeon asked. Several had declined before me, not willing to risk catching the disease themselves. During the surgery, my inner and outer gloves were torn and my finger was awash with the patient’s blood. In the post-operative period, despite my best efforts, I had further exposure. If HIV had been as infectious as Ebola, I’m sure I would have been infected. I therefore have great sympathy for the two nurses who found themselves infected in Houston.
I have provided medical care in a number of third world countries. I’ve washed my hands for surgery using a bar of ivory soap, using water that came from a tap over which someone had placed a surgical sponge in order to catch the dirt that fell from the faucet. I’ve operated on a man’s tibia while a Caesarian section was being done in the same room, with the obstetrician’s buttock bumping my own during the critical phases.
In these places, infection standards similar to those we practice in America are impossible to achieve. Physicians and nurses working in these environments face inevitable risks. Many have fallen prey to these risks. Nevertheless, they volunteer, knowing full well how dangerous their occupation is. To me, they are the heroes of our generation, and they exemplify what the medical profession should be all about. God bless them all.