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Heart surgeon kills himself amid illustrious career
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb had a gift for fixing heart defects in the tiniest patients, and it made him one of the best in the business. But that apparently wasn't good enough for him.
Drummond-Webb killed himself Dec. 26 with an overdose of painkillers and bourbon, just three days after what seemed like another medical miracle: the successful use of a miniature heart pump that kept a 14-year-old boy alive until an organ became available for transplant.
The 45-year-old surgeon left a profanity-laced suicide note in which he indicated he felt his work was underappreciated and ranted about colleagues at Arkansas Children's Hospital and at the Cleveland Clinic, where he formerly worked.
Drummond-Webb's extraordinary success rate for repairing complicated defects in hearts the size of an adult's thumb -- and his flair with patients and their families -- had made him a surgical star. He came across as a hero in a four-part prime-time ABC documentary in 2002.
But colleagues said Drummond-Webb was his own toughest critic.
"Some would say they saved 98 out of 100," said Arkansas Children's Hospital chief executive Dr. Jonathan Bates. "He looked at it and said, 'I lost two out of 100."'
In 18 months, Drummond-Webb, the hospital's chief of pediatric and congenital cardiac surgery, performed 830 operations with a 2 percent mortality rate.
"I just can't understand how this happened," DeBakey said. "I think he had this motivation to pursue excellence and you see that in some of the leaders in the field. People like that are almost always constantly frustrated."
Anesthesiologist Dr. Mike Schmitz said that even in Drummond-Webb's incredible achievements, the surgeon "saw his own subtle imperfections."
"I knew well that much of his angst was internal, a small voice in the back of his mind that said, 'That's not good enough: I could have done better," Schmitz wrote in a tribute to Drummond-Webb in the hospital's in-house magazine. "That which helped make him such a gifted surgeon was also an incredible burden; a burden that at least for a few hours one night became unbearable."
Drummond-Webb had an ability to explain his young patients' complicated situations in simple terms that helped him connect with their families. "Basically, he has holes in his heart," he said of one infant attached to numerous monitors.
Parents tell stories of Drummond-Webb personally packing feverish babies with ice or returning a boy's tooth lost during surgery with two quarters from the tooth fairy. Those who loved him have left 34 pages of grief-stricken tributes on a Web site for his wife.
Shari Wells met the South African doctor in 2001 when her infant son, Jacob, needed surgery for a heart defect. Jacob, who was born without a pulmonary valve, had seven operations performed by Drummond-Webb at Arkansas Children's Hospital.
Wells, a nurse from Searcy, said Drummond-Webb did not seem to have the protective wall that other doctors put between themselves and their patients.
"He really bonded with the parents. He seemed to understand the long process this was, that my little boy was very sick and he wasn't getting better," she said. "That disconnection that some surgeons have protects them emotionally, when they have the connection he did, it hurt worse."
Wells fears for Jacob's life now that Drummond-Webb is no longer with them. She said only a few surgeons have the skills to do what Drummond-Webb was doing, and most children in Arkansas cannot afford to travel out of state for treatment.
"We are a poor state and we need somebody else," he said. Arkansas Children's Hospital has "got a big job to fill."