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The unsung heroes of medicine

By Dr. Anthony Youn, CNN Contributor
updated 7:19 AM EST, Fri December 21, 2012
This holiday, consider thanking the unsung heroes at your hospital -- not just doctors and nurses.
This holiday, consider thanking the unsung heroes at your hospital -- not just doctors and nurses.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Most don't realize how many people it takes to save a life
  • In trauma cases, more than 20 people may be involved
  • Phlebotomists, radiology technicians and others deserve recognition

Editor's note: Dr. Anthony Youn is an assistant professor of surgery at the Oakland University/William Beaumont School of Medicine in Michigan. He is the author of "In Stitches," a memoir about growing up Asian-American and becoming a doctor. The names of the doctor and patient in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.

(CNN) -- I once had a doctor tell me, "Physicians get all the glory and all the money."

While that's not necessarily true -- nurses get quite a bit of recognition in health care -- most people don't realize just how many people it takes to save a life.

I was struck by this one night as a resident on the trauma service. Here's how I recall it:

The double doors to the emergency room slam open. A pair of emergency medical technicians (EMTs) wheel in a young man on a gurney.

Dr. Anthony Youn
Dr. Anthony Youn

"Eighteen-year-old male named John, involved in head-on collision. Brief loss of consciousness. He complains of chest and abdominal pain."

The EMT's, two trauma nurses and I move John over to the bed. One nurse begins cutting off his clothes with a huge pair of shears; the other connects him to the monitors.

A phlebotomist draws blood from one of his arms to send to the laboratory for analysis. A respiratory therapist applies an oxygen mask and monitors his breathing.

Standing at the periphery, a social worker rifles through John's wallet to collect contact information for his family. The head trauma surgeon, Dr. Kim, the physician's assistant (PA) and I evaluate him for injuries.

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John's neck and chest are X-rayed by a radiology technician. The secretary puts medication orders into the computer so a pharmacy technician, working with the pharmacist, can prepare the appropriate medicines.

We determine that John has a severe injury to his spleen, causing major internal bleeding. If we don't bring him to the operating room and remove his spleen immediately, he will die.

Kim calls the surgery nurses to inform them of the situation. Within minutes, a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) arrives with the anesthesiologist to rush John to the OR. A perfusion specialist arranges the cell saver, a specialized device that allows John's lost blood to be reused. One floor down, in the hospital basement, laboratory technicians work feverishly to determine his blood type, a necessity for transfusion.

For the next two hours, Kim and I perform a life-saving splenectomy. John's torn spleen is removed and he's transfused multiple units of blood. The surgical technologist deftly places the appropriate surgical instruments into our hands, often before we ask for them, contributing to the efficiency of the operation.

John survives.

The surgery concludes, and the CRNA and operating room nurses wheel him into the recovery room. As we exit the OR, its floor covered with used gauze sponges, suture ends, and a splattering of blood, the janitor enters with disinfectant, a mop and a bucket to make sure it's cleaned and prepared for the next patient.

Kim and I head to the waiting room. It's filled with John's family members, including his parents and siblings. Their eyes desperately try to read our faces as we walk toward them.

"John's OK. We removed his bleeding spleen, and he's stable in the recovery room right now," Kim confidently states.

Everyone cheers. Hugs are exchanged. Tears of relief and joy are shed.

John's mom embraces me. "You saved my son's life!" A big smile lights up her face. "Thank you for saving my son!"

I hug her back. "You're welcome. But it wasn't just me and Dr. Kim. Our team saved your son."

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We've all heard the old African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child." Well, it takes a village to save a life, too. Kim and I needed more than 20 people working as a team to save John. Take one member out of the equation and he likely would have died.

So why do "physicians get all the glory?" We may be the decision-makers, but we don't deserve all the credit. The unsung heroes of medicine -- members of the health care team other than doctors and nurses -- should be recognized, too.

So this holiday season, consider thanking the unsung heroes of your local hospital. Send some cookies to the respiratory therapists, pizza to the radiology technicians, and cupcakes to the phlebotomists. They deserve it just as much as we do.

Maybe more.

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