As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, meeting and talking to surgeons in different countries can be anxiety-producing at times.. Other times, just plain interesting and enjoyable.
At 71, Dr. Sanchez has seen and experienced volumes; in medicine, surgery and in life. We talked about all three of these during my visit – including some of his ‘war stories’ of yesteryear.
These included actual stories of war – such as trying to take care of the gravely wounded American GIs during the December 1989 military invasion of Panama (Operation: Just Cause), when he was working at the Gorgas Army Hospital at the Howard Military Base.
Dr. Sanchez talked about the difficulties of trying to save the GIs who parachuted in (and immediately became fodder for Noriega’s troops).
He also reflected on the fifteen years he spent training in the United States. He attended medical school at the University of Oklahoma, and completed both his residencies in the US at George Washington University prior to returning to Panama in 1972. He studied with a famous surgeon from the Cleveland Clinic as well as hosting multiple visits by American cardiac surgeons, Dr. Denton Cooley and Dr. Michael DeBakey (among others). These included one ignoble attempt to convert a Panamanian hospital into the private operating room suite for the ailing Shah of Iran. He laughed a bit when he explained how the illustrious Dr. DeBakey attempted to bluster his way into taking over the hospital but were foiled by Dr. Sanchez and his team, resulting in the Shah traveling to Cairo for his ill-fated surgery for lymphoma. (See the linked articles for more information about the fateful travels of an ailing ruler).
As he explained, “They just wanted to use our hospital [to perform a spleenectomy on the Shah] – and leave. They didn’t want our help or involvement. But you can’t just operate on someone and then go home.” As it turns out – his concerns were warranted, as the Shah experienced surgical complications after surgery in Egypt, and his surgeons were long gone, leaving his care to people previously un-involved in his care. (Ultimately, the Shah died four months after surgery – closing a chapter in Iranian history and ending the controversies regarding his treatment).
These stories are, of course, just minor tales in the long career of one of Panama’s first heart surgeons.