A heart patient's gift to his surgeon

Edward Martin, doing much better. A photo of his recovery helped his doctor through his own difficult time.

I trained to be a heart surgeon, because from the first moment in training, I saw how high-impact this specialty could be.

Heart surgeons specialize in fixing broken hearts. It takes a long time and many hours of operating to learn this trade, and the learning never ends.

It's a privilege with a downside: Despite our best efforts, some patients die, sometimes in terrible pain, either because their disease is too severe or they are not treated quickly enough.

Most of us learn to tolerate the losses and focus on the many who make it. But we also remember the ones we lose as well as those we save. They define us as professionals and sometimes even as human beings.

Edward Martin of Philadelphia is a patient I'll never forget. His is a story of hope, redemption, and survival, and one that I write with his consent and that of his wife, Valerie.

I do so with humility, knowing full well that many of my colleagues quietly save more lives than I ever will. And I write recognizing that life and fate are in greater hands than our own.

Several weeks ago, I received a message from Valerie. It was a picture of Ed fishing.

At first I didn't recognize him; it had been a few months since I'd heard from the family. And he looked a lot different from when I'd last seen him. In fact, he looked great and was clearly having fun.

I first met Ed last February when I was the weekend on-call heart surgeon at a local hospital. He'd had a heart attack a few days before, and his odds did not look good when he was transferred to my hospital. He was on a ventilator and his vital signs were very unstable. His lungs were filled with fluid and he was barely getting any oxygen.

Valerie was at his bedside, fear etched on her face.

I looked over Ed's studies with my service chief, a senior heart surgeon.

Ed had ruptured an important heart valve, the mitral valve, after his heart attack. He was in multi-organ failure and was sliding fast.

I wondered why it had taken so long to get him to our hospital, but quickly pushed that thought aside. His only chance - and it was not a certainty - was to replace that valve immediately.

We replaced his mitral valve with a mechanical one, but the operation was the simplest of his problems. His organ failure worsened. He bled and his chest wound got infected due to the stress his body was under.

We put him on special devices to do the work of his heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver. His chances of dying were well over 80 percent coming out of surgery. He slipped into a coma, related to his organ failure. In this situation, usually death is near.

But Ed, at 58, was a strong man. Valerie and his children stayed by his side 24/7. Valerie watched over him prayerfully and nonstop; the family's love for this man was clearly unconditional.

It took months, but Ed slowly improved. Gradually we were able to wean him off the lifesaving devices. And one day, he woke up.

Then came months of rehab; it looked as if he was making it.

I was happy for him and his family and proud of all our team had done to help save him. We eventually left Ed in the capable hands of the rehab doctors.

Then Ed was out of the hospital and under the care of his cardiologist.

Around the same time, we started dealing with my wife's cancer crisis, and I was forced to step aside and into a different role, at least for a while.

A few weeks ago in the midst of a very challenging time for my own family, I got Valerie's message with the picture of Ed, fishing.

It was truly a gift, a picture of hope and healing at a time when we needed it most.

Hooman Noorchashm, M.D., Ph.D., writes for Philly.com's Check Up blog, with his wife, Amy Reed, M.D. Ph.D., on medical-device safety, particularly the power morcellator used against her uterine cancer.