The doctor who walked the talk

Published - October 27, 2013 02:02 am IST

Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

Illustration: Sreejith R. Kumar

Every year since 2000, the last Sunday of September has been celebrated as World Heart Day (WHD), a movement created and promoted by the World Heart Federation. Unfortunately, the legendary man behind the concept did not survive to see his dream come true. But the philosophy he lived for seems more relevant today than it was when he died 40 years ago.

Paul Dudley White was an unusual doctor in every sense. Born on June 6, 1886, at Roxbury, Massachusetts, he studied medicine at Harvard Medical School and got his MD in 1911. He joined the famed Massachusetts General Hospital, for a life long association, where he became Professor in 1946.

His academic achievements stand tall, with a staggering 12 books and 700-plus journal publications. His clinical acumen and diagnostic capabilities were legendary, so much so that he was appointed as consultant physician to the then President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His social commitment in the arena of preventive cardiology was so strong that he was awarded the ‘President’s Medal of Freedom’, the highest civilian honour in the U.S.

In 1999, Dr. Rene Favelaro, Argentinean surgeon who pioneered bypass surgery, wrote an article in the prestigious medical journal Circulation , in memory of Dr. White. He highlighted the unconventional philosophies of Dr. White during his lifetime and how effective they are, years after he was gone.

Dr. White always believed in the art of listening to the patient. He was convinced that despite technological advances, the patient’s history and complaints are the most important clue to the diagnosis, patient well-being and, ultimately, satisfaction. The other day, I saw an elderly woman who had an angioplasty done for a block in the heart at a topnotch five-star hospital. When I asked her how she felt, she said, “Doctor, my problem is a chronic backpain for which I need relief, but no one seems to listen.” Technology savvy, busy experts find it more challenging and satisfying to treat a complex coronary block hidden deep inside the heart than prescribe a simple painkiller for the not-so-glamorous backpain.

Dr. White firmly believed that diet, exercise and weight reduction are at the core of cardiovascular prevention and followed it to the hilt. Cycling was his favourite pastime. He was sighted cycling back after consulting on the President and walking 11 km from the American Heart Association office to the LaGuardia airport in New York after a committee meeting, reflecting his strong belief in what he preached. Press reporters were surprised and startled when he bypassed the waiting elevator to walk up 13 floors for a press briefing on the president’s health. He started the meeting instantly without pausing for breath.

Perhaps, it would be surprising and beyond logic to many modern day medical practitioners that, as per records, in 1943 Dr. Paul Dudley White charged a minimum fee of $15, while in 1963, he reduced it to $5, when he was one of the most sought-after physicians.

He founded the International Cardiology Federation (ICF), which later merged with the International Society of Cardiology to form the World Heart Federation.

The theme of the 2013 WHD, ‘the road to a healthy heart,’ is a major shift in strategy. Shifting the focus from the ‘goal-to-reach’, we have suddenly realised that getting on to the road to start the journey is more important. The road, eventually would lead to the goal.

So the next time you wait for an elevator, hail an auto or are offered that extra laddu, think of the doctor who has become an enigma to medical science. The memory of the legendary Dr. White with a cycle might make you decide to climb the stairs, walk down the road or sweetly refuse the sweet.

Dr. White died in 1973 at age 87. As a scientist practising the art of prevention, he enjoyed a lifetime of good health and left a legacy lasting much beyond.

( The writer is Head, Department of Cardiology, PRS Hospital, Thiruvananthapuram. Email: )

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