Dr John Elefteriades has served as a director of cardiothoracic surgery at Yale and is among the most clinically active academic cardiac surgeons in the United States. He has trained dozens of physicians all over the world and his groundbreaking research has highlighted that coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) can be performed relatively safely on patients with coronary artery disease and advanced ventricular dysfunction. Men’s Health magazine included him in its list of the 10 best doctors in the USA. Recently, he published his first novel, titled “Transplant,” a mysterious medical thriller which was a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards as a best first novel.
Elefteriades, a professor of cardiac surgery at the Yale School of Medicine, clocks in at the hospital at 7.30 a.m. He has surgery every day and works seven days a week, 365 days a year, unless he is on a trip. He has already traveled to 33 countries for lectures or surgeries, including Greece, where he was elected a member of the Academy of Athens in February.
How did medicine come into your life?
I had not decided anything until I finished my undergraduate studies in French, psychology and physics. When I finished them, I was thinking of turning to other subjects, like French literature and business, but I passed the entrance examinations in medicine first and I just continued.
What are the values passed down from your family?
I have three sisters. We all learned not to forget our roots and grew proud of our Greek descent. Until we went to school, we only spoke Greek at home. We love Greece, which we often visit. We are also religious and we often go to church on Sundays.
This position is in contradiction with many scientists nowadays, who are atheists.
I think we should be modest. Let us look around and ask ourselves how all these things have been created. We cannot explain the wise creation of such a huge world. It must be something else that we can never explain and we call it God. Personally, I believe in Him.
Have you experienced any incidents you would describe as miracles in your work?
Of course, many times. I remember a woman who was having surgery on her lungs when a medical tool cut her heart by accident, and she lost a lot of blood. They called me to help but the woman was already clinically dead. However, we put her on the heart-lung machine, closed the heart hole, and then transferred her to the clinic of the group that started the first operation. I didn’t think of her all night long, being sure that she was going to die. The next day, when I was visiting my patients, I heard a nurse telling me “you have to see that lady.” She was not just alive – she was awake and talking to me. It was a miracle. It just so happened that we knew each other. She was my children’s teacher in elementary school. Indeed, she had once visited our home. It’s been nine years since all this happened. She told me that when she was in the operating room, she saw an angel. That’s why, when she recovered, she brought me a glass angel as a gift. That’s a miracle. That woman wouldn’t be alive. This one, along with 10 other patient stories, is included in my book titled “Extraordinary Hearts.”
You have also written a medical thriller.
Yes. It has to do with the deep love of a parent towards his child. It’s about a wealthy businessman who is looking for a heart for his son. Will he kill someone or will he buy an organ? I don’t want to give any more details, but the sure thing is that the book does not deal with something bad, but something deeper, like the parent’s love for his child. How big can a parent’s love be? You have two lungs or two kidneys. You can easily live with one of them. But you only have one heart.
I think these stories also highlight everyday problems with uninsured patients.
This is true. However, in our hospital, if anyone comes to the emergency room, he will have any help he needs without money being an issue.
What is your biggest achievement to date in your career?
I am very pleased with the progress that has been made by our team on aortic aneurysms. We have scientifically identified the best guidelines for when an aneurysm should be operated. Also, 20 years ago we demonstrated that the aortic aneurysms may be hereditary.
How easy is it for a doctor to control his feelings? Have you ever cried because of your job?
From the beginning of my career, I convinced myself that when things are difficult, I have to work with absolute calm. The harder a situation is, the quieter I stay. I have cried three or four times, but there is one occasion I will never forget. Twenty-five years ago, we saved a 14-year-old boy with a ruptured aorta. He also had a form of autism. He was intelligent and painted wonderful paintings. Nine months later, his genetic disorder worsened and although the first surgery had gone well, his aorta was inflated. We had to replace the damaged part but despite all our efforts for about 14 hours, we did not manage to save him. At the end of the day, when I lay down to sleep, I cried. I was very sad because I loved this child and wanted to save him.
When did you hear about your election to the Athens Academy?
It was on the night of February 14. It was a wonderful gift for me and my wife, given the day.
How easy is it to advance the work of the Academy with your election as a member given the current climate of political turmoil and very extreme views prevailing internationally?
That is a deep question. I am worried about the way the world is headed and the fact that countries with different cultures are not doing well. I think that the arts and science offer promise. When scientists meet each other, we don’t care about the difference in culture, religion, place of origin. We are only interested in our science. I have traveled to 33 countries for lectures or surgeries, and every time I learn that we have to respect all our fellow human beings and honor their background and religion. I share all your concerns about the global direction of the last 10 years. I am worried about the future of our children. I have no solutions. All I can do is behave with unlimited respect for people and continue my everyday work, hoping to contribute to the overall work of this great Academy. It is a great honor that I have been elected as its member.
Do you prefer surgery or research?
My first love is surgery. I’m happier in the operating room and I never feel tired. To be honest, it’s like a dependency. But I also love research. I’m happy to have a team of about 15 scientists working with me on the research. Many of them come from Greece. But I always love the hours in the operating room.
What is your relationship with Greece?
My father was from Hania, Crete. My parents left Greece in 1949 and a year later I was born in Philadelphia. My father studied engineering in America. My mother graduated from high school, but she stayed home to take care of me and my three sisters. I have visited Greece many times. I’ve been to the island of Kos and visited the tree of Hippocrates. I am inspired by the history of Greece. I like its monuments and I’m delighted with Delphi. I feel their energy and spirit.
This article first appeared in “K,” Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement.