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The Difference Between God and a Surgeon

How one father’s worst nightmare—a horrifying accident involving his child—was transformed by the skill of a brilliant doctor

(page 3 of 4)

He lets one of us-Jennifer-go back to be there when Gracie comes to. My gratitude and relief upon hearing his guardedly hopeful prognosis are so overwhelming that I don’t know what to say. “It didn’t look like much of an eye this afternoon.”


He agrees.

“Was it worse because there were two?”

“The double punctures didn’t change much in terms of her vision, because it depended where they were exactly, and neither was in the worst spot.”

Two punctures doubled the opportunities for infection, however. We would have to be extra vigilant with antibacterial drops. I promised him we would be and thanked him and thanked him and thanked him. How did he learn to do this miraculous thing? By having brains and steady hands but also by working his ass off.

Googling Peter K. Rabiah, we find that he graduated from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1988, following that with a residency in ophthalmology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A yearlong fellowship in uveitis (inflammation of the pigmented layer of the eye) at Illinois and another in pediatric ophthalmology at UCLA. Board certified in ophthalmology, 1994. Graduating from college around 1984 made him a little over 40, I figured; his name and features made him appear Arab American.

He wouldn’t have been hired to work and teach at Northwestern, one of the best medical programs anywhere, if he weren’t really good at his job going in. After that, during ten years of practice, it’s fair to assume he got better and better: sharper diagnostic skills, more precision under the microscope, more effective follow-up protocols. An accomplished healer to begin with, he got used to dealing with some of the toughest cases in Chicago, as well as some of the traumas and complications that ophthalmologists throughout the Midwest couldn’t handle.

Here’s the kicker. Google also takes us to the Web site of the International Centre for Eye Health, where we learn that a year before Grace’s accident, someone had published a paper called “Penetrating Needle Injury of the Eye Causing Cataract in Children” in the distinguished journal Ophthalmology. The author was Peter K. Rabiah.

The guy we had lucked into was the very surgeon you would want peering through the microscope and supervising the aftercare if your child’s eye got injured this way. If his study had been written less recently, the state of the art might have changed. As it was, Peter Rabiah was almost ridiculously well prepared to save Grace’s eye. The care she received was as good as it gets, probably could not be improved on. If only we had known this as we drove her to the hospital that night, or argued about where to go first! Thank God Dr. Rabiah was available, we kept saying to ourselves and telling each other. God forbid that a second-rate surgeon would have handled the case.

What’s the difference between God and a surgeon? God doesn’t think he’s a surgeon.

A plumber attended to a leaking faucet at a surgeon’s house. After a two-minute job, he demanded $150. The surgeon exclaimed, “I don’t even charge that much and I’m a surgeon!”

The plumber replied, “I didn’t either when I was a surgeon. That’s why I switched to plumbing.”

Then there’s the young girl who tells her parents, “A boy in my class asked me to play doctor.”

“Oh, dear,” say her parents, wringing their hands. “What happened, honey?”

“He made me wait 45 minutes, then double-billed the insurance company.”

The blood sport of doctor bashing is all well and good and quite often terribly funny. No doubt many doctors deserve heaps of enmity and/or prison time, if not Texas justice itself. Even so, a whole lot of folks underestimate how arduous and expensive it is to obtain a diploma that simply gets your foot in the door of a serious teaching hospital. A full-scale scientific or medical education, from college through postgraduate work, costs more than a million dollars. Certainly the prospect of a handsome income is a motivating factor, but so is pure altruistic heart. How else could these folks make it through the long educational process? Premed types and science wonks have to skip a lot of tailgate parties, hot dates, and greet-the-dawn poker sessions to get the kind of grades that make them eligible for med school.

Once they get admitted to med school, they can kiss their social life and nightlife goodbye. Yet delaying gratification and working their ass off in med school barely prepares them for the staggering grind that interns put up with: 50-hour days in a series of life-and-death situations for salaries on a par with those of nannies and construction workers, not a twelfth of what banjo-hitting utility infielders make. What nannies and laborers do is plenty important, but we owe smart M.D.’s our lives.

When Peter Rabiah was in his mid-30s, he was still going to school to learn how to keep children from going blind. In fact, because of the way the literature of his specialty happily keeps expanding (in part because of him), he will be in school until he retires. Did I mention that he keeps injured and sick children from going blind, but that the way he carries himself in his practice couldn’t be more unassuming? If a child needs his expertise late of a Friday, when he’s already halfway out the door, he stays on for several more hours. (This happens irrespective of insurance coverage, by the way, because the hospital group pays him a salary that doesn’t depend on how much they collect from individual patients. Plus it’s virtually unimaginable that any doctor would send an injured but uninsured child on her way. Her family might get dunned till the cows come home, but her eye will get treated just the same.) How much does Rabiah earn? Middle six figures, I’d guess. I’d also guess that without the possibility of being well compensated, his and a lot of other excellent doctoring, not to mention breakthroughs in the laboratory, simply wouldn’t happen. Whatever income and status these people derive by keeping us out of the clinic or crematorium, they richly deserve.



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