Every doctor has a reason for wanting to be a healer. Here are the stories of four area doctors who chose to make a difference.
Face to face
Plastic surgeon gained fame for saving a toddler attacked by a python.
Story: Theresa Campbell
Dr. Fernando Serra, a Sumter County native, remembers Aug. 4, 1999, well. An 18-month-old Fruitland Park boy had been bitten on the face by a 13-foot-long pet Burmese python, and the plastic surgeon needed to do emergency surgery on the child at Leesburg Regional Medical Center.
Luckily, the boy, Nickolas Graham, was taken to the hospital in time.
Media accounts of the case report Puppy, the female snake, had been placed in a bathtub to drink water before family members discovered the python had slithered outside near the concrete patio where Nickolas was playing and clamped onto him. Nickolas’ mother, Cindy Graham, frantically called 911 while his father, Bill Broyles, was bitten several times as he wrestled to uncoil the snake.
“The child had a large avulsion of the scalp and his eyelids were off the skull bone,” Dr. Serra recalls. “The kid should have gone to Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital (in Orlando), but it was raining and the helicopters were down. He ended up in Leesburg. I was on call, and it was pretty intense.”
The surgeon was pleased the CAT scan showed Nickolas’ brain was intact.
“Everything was there, it just needed to be put back together,” Dr. Serra says. “From the surgical standpoint, it was relatively straightforward, and when you are operating on a child, it is more difficult because all of the structures are so small. In this case, I wore my special magnifying loupes so I could identify the tendons for the attachment of the eyelids and in putting everything back together perfectly. Fortunately, it worked out.”
Dr. Serra’s actions garnered media attention. Around five years ago, Animal Planet TV network asked him to tell the story for an episode about snakes.
“They sent a film crew from L.A. and we did a video, we simulated an interview, and they ended up using the segment in the Animal Planet episode. They keep showing it because I keep getting phone calls from all my friends all over the nation saying, ‘Hey, I saw you on TV!’” Dr. Serra says. The Animal Planet segment can be viewed on the surgeon’s website, drserra.com, under the “In the media” tab.
“The incident really kind of catapulted my practice. I was the guy who saved the kid’s eyelids, and it opened the floodgates and turbo-boosted my practice,” says Dr. Serra, who operates Central Florida Plastic Surgery in The Villages.
The surgeon was pleased to run into Nickolas and his mother a few years ago on Main Street in Leesburg.
“He was doing great and had grown up to be a very nice, handsome teenager,” Dr. Serra says. “Of course, I was examining him. There was a very faint semicircle scar around the eye—hardly any trace of the injury that had happened, and it was very rewarding to see him. I am glad it worked out with a happy ending.”
Out of Africa
A journey redirected the medical career of Magbor, the ‘tiger woman.’
Story: Leigh Neely
From the time she was a child, Dr. Lauren Britt, with Lake OB-GYN Associates of Mid-Florida, knew she wanted to be a doctor. She set out to be a cardiovascular surgeon because she thought there was nothing more fascinating than the beating heart.
However, all that changed when the Leesburg resident took a trip to West Africa between her first and second years of medical school. “I told my parents I wanted to go to Somalia, to Mogadishu. They said no, and we compromised on Cameroon in West Africa.”
Lauren and her best friend and maid of honor, Jessica Sullivan, who worked in public health, set off to teach African snail farming. She says the snails don’t taste like chicken, however, she ate porcupine while there, and it did taste like chicken.
To do snail farming, they built ground huts made of cinder blocks to raise the giant snails. This part of West Africa has very little protein available, even though the men hunt. The snail’s mucous is also a natural antibiotic, which the people can use and sell to make money.
They’re not exactly escargot. “You pop on a skewer and roast them like hot dogs.”
The two young women lived in the jungle for six weeks, fighting over the twin-bed mosquito net they had for their full bed. There was limited electricity and no running water. In addition to building the snail farms and teaching the villagers how to raise them, they helped at the local clinic.
The only supplies the doctor had were one glove per patient. “The HIV rate was 50 percent in this area, and the STDs were rampant,” Lauren says. “A woman’s worth was based on how many children she could have. With no entertainment, there was sex, and then the STDs caused scarring and women would become infertile and shunned by their families.”
A British surgeon operated on patients for free, but patients had to furnish their own materials.
The operating room, where obstetrics patients were seen, was open air, had no running water, and had jars of stuff surrounding the perimeter, Lauren says. A woman who had been traveling in the back of a car in labor for three days arrived at the OR. The doctor determined the baby was stuck, but there were no supplies for a C-section.
“He used a box cutter as a scalpel and trauma shears for the uterus,” Lauren says. “He got the baby out, and that was the only thing I’d ever seen that was cooler than a beating heart.”
The mother and the baby lived, and Lauren says the baby is probably 10 or 11 now. “The doctor ran out of suture while closing the uterus and we had to wait for them to get more, with her lying there bleeding.”
“I grew up in Africa,” Lauren says, and she loved it. “I love sleeping on a dirt floor better than staying in a resort. That was the best and worst trip I’ve ever taken.”
The elder of the village, who was 54, honored the young women. Before they left, the two women were inducted into the tribe. “I got my African name, Magbor, which is ugly, but it means ‘tiger woman.’”
And the trip changed her professional goal—she became an OB/GYN.
She and her husband, Andrew Skattum, still love working in areas like Cameroon, but now they’re concentrating on raising their two children, Hank and Alice.
“We want to take our kids with us someday. We want them to see how blessed we really are to be here.”
Every time Lauren delivers a baby in the sterile space provided for mothers in this area, she thinks of an amazing woman who traveled for three days in labor and survived a C-section in a small village in West Africa.
The family business
The legacies of his father and grandfather inspired cardiologist Rick Hurt.
Story: Chris Gerbasi
Starting in the late 1920s, Dr. Rick Hurt’s grandfather, and later his father, served the small town of West Jefferson, Ohio, as family doctors. His grandmother, mother, and aunt were nurses, and young Rick tagged along on house calls with his dad.
So it was almost inevitable that he would enter the “family business”—once he realized he probably couldn’t make a living in a rock band. But if Dr. Hurt ever had any second thoughts, they were erased during a sad yet inspirational event, the funeral of his grandfather, John Hurt, in the early 1990s.
“What impressed me at his funeral was that the entire town showed up—not a big town, but a farm town of about 3,000,” says Dr. Hurt, an interventional cardiologist at FHV Health in Leesburg.
About two decades later, the scene was repeated when the town turned out again for the funeral of Dr. Hurt’s father, also named John. Witnessing how these two doctors had touched people’s lives in such a profound way reinforced to Dr. Hurt that he had made the right career choice.
“It was just phenomenal to see the outpouring of support and the stories from the patients, like ‘your dad or your grandfather delivered my entire brood.’ These kinds of things are very heart-warming,” he says. “These were probably the moments that really said to me, ‘Yeah, you did the right thing,’ because I saw what they meant to their patients, and if I could do half as well in service to the community as they did, that’s certainly a worthy goal to strive for. And, as it turned out, I love what I do.”
Dr. Hurt says his dad and granddad were proud that he followed in their footsteps, if on a slightly different path. He gravitated toward cardiology because as an internal medicine resident, most of the cases he saw were cardiac-related. Now he has 32 years of experience in cardiology and is affiliated with Leesburg Regional Medical Center and The Villages Regional Hospital.
He enjoys the interaction with people and the positive feedback from patients.
“In cardiology, I think there is a big opportunity to make a big impact in times of crises for these patients and their families,” Dr. Hurt says.
Indeed, a cardiologist can turn a prognosis around in a heartbeat with a heart catheterization and a stent, he says. He also does procedures with angioplasty, pacemakers, and other diagnostics. Even as the doctor spoke in his office one day recently, he was on 24-hour call and directing a colleague to treat a heart attack victim who was on the way to the hospital. And even after three decades, when Dr. Hurt gets that call, he still feels an adrenaline rush.
“I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but it’s helpful at 2 in the morning,” he jokes.
While on call, Dr. Hurt occasionally needs to bring someone back from the brink.
“Every few months, there’s a situation where you probably have somebody knocking at death’s door and you can have an impact in a favorable way,” he says.
Many Midwestern transplants live in Lake and Sumter counties, bringing Dr. Hurt’s career full circle in a remarkable, coincidental way: he sometimes sees patients who knew his father and grandfather in Ohio. Now, on a daily basis, he enjoys that same appreciation from patients that his two family members earned.
“If you can do something that may impact somebody’s life in a positive way, I think that’s a great feeling,” he says.
A cool head in an emergency
Dr. Jeremy Spry has to be a fast thinker in ER cases.
Story: Chris Gerbasi
After more than 20 years of working in emergency rooms, Dr. Jeremy Spry still loves the fast-paced action that can have life-or-death consequences.
“You can never say you’ve seen it all,” says Dr. Spry, an osteopath and medical director at The Villages Regional Hospital. “It’s always something different. There’s a problem-solving aspect in every case. You’re working with acutely ill or injured people, and you’re taking the responsibility to know what to do to help them.”
Dr. Spry knew time was of the essence one day several years ago when a woman in her 70s or 80s was brought into the ER. The woman, whom he described as “incredibly active,” was visiting The Villages from out of town when she suffered a major stroke, the doctor says.
“With a stroke, you need to approach a patient very rapidly,” Dr. Spry says. “You only have a certain window to treat her.”
He acted immediately to get an imaging of the woman’s brain and interpret it, make sure laboratories were available, and find out the timeline of when the stroke symptoms began by talking to people who saw the woman last. The doctor needs to gather all of that information to make a judgment about the appropriate treatment for a stroke patient.
Dr. Spry’s choices had implications that potentially were life-threatening, or life-altering if a stroke survivor is left unable to speak or move. He chose to give medication to the woman, and that did the trick. Within six to 12 hours, she was on her way to a full recovery and a return to her active life, he says.
The hospital treats about three acute stroke cases each month, and sometimes doctors see an immediate resolution in the first hour or so, he says. But the nature of an ER doctor’s job is to fix a problem fast and move on—patients move on to the intensive care unit or another area for treatment, and physicians move on to the next case. They don’t make rounds the next day, or hear much feedback on patients’ progress, or develop close ties to patients.
“We get you where you need to be,” Dr. Spry says. “That’s one part of the job that’s not that good—you don’t get to see that outcome and follow the patient through.”
Dr. Spry often is asked how he deals with blood, trauma, and even death on a daily basis, and he admits that he’s a little numb to all of it because it’s his job.
“You don’t have a lot of time to dwell on it,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean cases don’t stick with ER doctors. He still recalls a case from early in his career when he was working in Kentucky. A family of five was traveling on Christmas vacation when the father fell asleep at the wheel and caused a terrible accident. One or two of the children died at the scene, and the other family members were separated and taken to different medical centers for treatment, adding anguish to the tragedy.
“You do remember cases that kind of affect you,” Dr. Spry says. “Any cases with kids are very tough cases, especially when you have children of your own and you look back in retrospect.”
ER stories run the gamut—good, bad, funny, sad, and even crazy. But the doctors need short memories.
“We understand that the worst place you want to be in life is the ER,” Dr. Spry says. “You always stay empathetic and you want their experience to be as great as it possibly can be. But at some point, it’s your job and you know what you need to do with it.”