By Anna Nguyen
For G. Michael Lemole Jr., M.D., it’s simply his job to save the lives of patients who have suffered from life-threatening traumatic injuries.
Lemole, chief of neurosurgery at the University of Arizona Department of Surgery and University Medical Center, found himself in the national spotlight after he performed brain surgery on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she sustained a gunshot wound to the head in Tucson on Jan. 8.
As the keynote speaker at Health Journalism 2011, he retraced the treatment of the congresswoman earlier this year and his experience working with the media.
“Everyone made a big deal of what we did, but it’s what we do everyday … This is academic medicine at its best,” Lemole said. His hospital is designated by the American College of Surgeons as being equipped to provide the highest level of surgical care to trauma patients. “The real focus of the entire event is the congresswoman.”
Lemole and surgical team performed three surgeries on Giffords. On Jan. 8, Lemole and Martin E. Weinand, M.D., removed part of Giffords’ skull to allow her brain to swell, as well as removing dead brain tissue and skull fragments caused by the bullet. On Jan. 15, Lemole repaired her orbital roof fracture through a skull base approach.
“If there is any silver lining in this, it’s that the bullet didn’t take a more traumatic trajectory,” he said.
The last surgery that Giffords received was a ventriculostomy, which measured intracranial pressure and drained fluid in the brain. He supervised the congresswoman’s care until she was released to a Houston rehabilitation hospital on Jan. 21.
During this time, Lemole and others committed to making themselves available to the media. “We strategized with ourselves, administrators, and with the family. The family asked us to get the correct information out,” he said.
Many doctors are reluctant to speak to the media because they are trained to judge and be judged by objective criteria. With media interactions, doctors are not in control as they are in our operating rooms and intensive care units, Lemole said. During the coverage, he found blog postings involving his parents and comparing his looks to Dan Aykroyd.
Overall, Lemole considered the experience “as positive as it could have been in this terrible event.”
“It’s important to get the story right and give some positive feedback to the media. It was a healthy interaction and respectful of both parties,” Lemole said after the speech.
Conference attendees found the opportunity to hear from Lemole helpful in thinking about their own reporting.
“It’s always good to hear from the other side. We’re always asking the questions and don’t usually get a chance to hear how they viewed us,” said Stephanie Nano, assistant health and science editor for The Associated Press in New York.
Daniel J. DeNoon, a senior medical writer for WebMD, said that this is an ongoing story that journalists will be writing more about. “I really appreciated that he went into details of the operation. It’s extremely timely and informational.”
Anna Nguyen is an independent journalist based in Philadelphia.