Friday, January 3, 2020

Surgical notes #3: 2001—Chicago surgeon tries to do his part

     This is the sidebar to the piece on orthopedic surgery in Lithuania posted yesterday: what happened after Dr. Lubicky finished operating. For some odd reason, I didn't mention the goal of our late-night outing: a bust of Frank Zappa, incongruously situated in Vilnius, that Dr. Lubicky wanted to see.  Dr. Lubicky still practices, as a pediatric orthopedic surgeon in West Virginia. 

Dr. John Lubicky
     VILNIUS, Lithuania After three hours of difficult surgery, Dr. John Lubicky strips off his latex gloves and leaves the operating room as if it were on fire.
      "What a job!" someone says. 
     But the Chicago surgeon is already gone. In a moment, he has washed up, changed into coat and tie and is striding down the dim halls of Children's Hospital here in that rapid gait particular to Olympic speed-walkers and great surgeons. Doctors scramble after Lubicky. Those who hesitate are left behind as he sweeps into an examination area. 
     Children already are waiting for him—they have been for hours, in wheelchairs, in braces, wearing their church clothes, their parents hovering grimly behind them. Ten minutes after surgery, Lubicky is shuttling between two small examining rooms. He sees a frightened, cross-eyed girl in pigtails and a boy in a wheelchair, his eyes rimmed in red. As soon as he finishes in one room, he heads to the other. 
     He flexes a leg, tilts an ankle, then gives the news, which is often grim. He urges an interpreting doctor not to sugar-coat his translation to a worried mother of a 14-year-old who broke his neck. "She has to know it's unlikely anything will improve," he says. The mother of a 9-year-old with acute meningitis wants to know if he might ever walk. Lubicky shakes his head. "No."
     The exchanges seem brusque. But Lubicky has found truth is often in short supply in the Lithuanian medical system. "Their doctors don't always tell them," he says. "They need to know the situation so they can come to terms with it." He finishes with the last child of the day. "Is that it?" Lubicky asks, and he's off again. Lubicky is handed some pictures done in amber, gifts from a grateful patient, one of many. "Do you know how many books on Lithuania I have?" he asks, in an aside, stashing them. 
Frank Zappa bust, Vilnius
      Lubicky doesn't do what he does here for the gratitude. He's not doing it out of cultural pride, either—he isn't Lithuanian. Foreign travel holds no appeal—he rarely goes to see the local sights, other than a ritual late-evening quick-step through the dark streets of Vilnius, his colleagues traipsing after him. So why does he do it? 
     "He feels it's a privilege to care for people, not a privilege for them to come to you," says Liana Chotikul, a surgical nurse from Baltimore who is working with him. But why so dedicated? Even his closest associates can only guess. "I think he's very religious," says Norene Jamieson. 
     While he speaks of wanting to scale back, to think more of himself and his own family, Lubicky can't ignore the needs here in Lithuania. The trips will continue, he says, as long as there's a need, the sort of need he saw on his first visit, in 1993. "A continuous line of children," he remembers. "They didn't even have a place for people to sit. They just stood there all day, lining up on the sidewalk, waiting to get in."
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 20, 2001


  1. Ah, a rare insight: telling the truth is important. I'm reading Midnight at Chernobyl, which makes it obvious that the Soviet fear of national and international embarrassment made truthtelling reprehensible and threatened to make the disaster at Chernobyl even worse than it was. But as Dr. Lubicky said, "They need to know the situation so they can come to terms with it." It is always so: in Kiev, in Moscow, and in Washington D.C.


  2. In many nations, quality health care is not available. In America, it's available, but only if you can pay. I don't see how this gives America anything to brag about.

  3. Better to have quality healthcare and the ability to pay for it before you need it, than to need it and not have it available, even if you can afford it. Sorta like having access to a gun. And unless you join the military, guns aren't free. Is there anyplace where quality healthcare is not only available and free, but a right as well?

    1. Is there anyplace where quality healthcare is not only available and free, but a right as well?

      Are you kidding me, Grizz? France, England, Canada, Japan, Scandinavia...practically the whole First World, except for the United States. Every other prosperous, civilized nation figured out long ago that making health care contingent on ability to pay was not only cruel, but corrosive to society in the long term.

    2. No, I am not kidding you. When I said "free"...I meant in a $0.00 co-pay and zee-row charges of any kind. Like you walk in somewhere and you get taken care of...whether it's stitches or heart surgery. Where is THAT country? Does it even exist? Do they speak English there?

      How's Wonkette? My wife has been a member for years. If you've ever encountered anyone who mentions a "Mr. Pook"'s she. And me. Small world.

    3. See my first comment. And as far as I know, they speak English in England and Canada.

    4. I remember Watching 60 minutes and seeing a story about the health care system in France. The reporter pointed out the sign for the cashier's office and inquired about its purpose if the procedures performed at the hospital were at absolutely no out of pocket expense to patients. It was explained that the cashier wasn't there to collect money but to distribute it as needed by the patient - for cab fare or any other purpose where the patient may need cash.
      Sorry. Off point. Whichever point I was attempting to make. I forgot.

    5. Nothing is free. Taxes support health care in the above mentioned countries. That it is available to all when needed is the key. In all these countries people have complaints about particulars, as we do. In England doctors pay was tied to better patient outcomes, a concept preferable to the Frist family becoming billionaires as hospital owners.


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