Cleveland Clinic could save the missionary’s life. But only if he could get here.
“You’re too sick to fly.” That’s what they told Charles Linderman, MD, in Athens, Greece. Dr. Linderman is a missionary, and an American. He has devoted his life to helping the people of Albania. Now, he himself needed help. But help, in the form of Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute at Cleveland Clinic, was an ocean away. If he couldn’t fly, he would die…
Dr. Linderman’s road to this seeming impasse was long and dramatic. It began more than ten years earlier. He was an eager young medical resident, then. On the last night of his training, he suffered his first health catastrophe: an aortic dissection. The great vessels of his heart were literally coming apart. His life was saved by emergency surgery, which fitted him with an artificial aorta and homograft (donor) aortic valve. When he recovered, he was a changed man.
“I felt like I was on borrowed time,” he recalls. “I needed to do something with the life I had left.” He determined, then, to become a missionary. He went to work in the Albania, a country that has known hard times both before and after the breakup of communist rule. In Albania, Dr. Linderman worked as a trauma surgeon, doing good for people who might otherwise have no access to quality care.
Unfortunately, the prosthetic aorta and valve Dr. Linderman had been implanted with on an emergency basis were not meant to be permanent. Over the next decade, while Dr. Linderman worked among the Albanians, the valve and graft slowly deteriorated.
Dr. Linderman was a busy man. He was not only director of Surgery at Tirana Orthodox Medical Center, he supported Children’s Home of Hope, an orphanage with 36 children, as well as caring for his own family. At the same time, he was working to found a new hospital – a 100-bed non-profit facility to be called the American International Hospital. He was so busy helping other, that he did not attend to his own health until it was too late.
All the symptoms were there: profound fatigue, shortness of breath and weight loss. Soon, it could not be denied: his heart was failing.
“The aortic dissection Charles had ten years earlier was very complicated,” says Joseph Sabik, MD, chairman of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery at Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute. “Over time, the homograft had degenerated and he developed severe aortic insufficiency, a severe leaky valve, as well as a very weak heart.”
Only the most complex surgery could save his life now. His colleagues among the Albanian medical community were not trained to perform these difficult procedures. He would need to go to America. Specifically, to Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute at Cleveland Clinic, which has the world’s largest experience in great vessel surgeries of the type Dr. Linderman needed. (In fact, it was Cleveland Clinic surgeons who had saved Dr. Linderman’s life in his first aortic crisis.)
Dr. Linderman needed to cross the ocean. But his condition was deteriorating rapidly. He was flown only as far as Athens, where it was determined that he was too ill to make the transcontinental trip. For 11 days, the missionary was ministered to in an Athens hospital. There, Greek caregivers did everything possible to restore his strength to the point where they could risk putting him on back on a plane.
Finally, he arrived at Cleveland Clinic. But it was almost too late. He was already in multisystem organ failure that required yet another week to stabilize. As soon as it was possible, he was prepared for surgery. Dr. Sabik himself did the procedure.
“We had to go in and replace his homograft root,” says Dr. Sabik, “using a composite mechanical valve and graft to re-replace his aortic valve and root.”
“I have been delivered,” says a grateful Dr. Linderman. “I strongly believe that I wouldn’t be alive without Cleveland Clinic and the Larry King Foundation. (The cost of his treatment was covered by the Larry King Foundation, a partner with Cleveland Clinic in enabling uninsured individuals – including poor missionary doctors — to have life-saving cardiac surgery.)
Today, Dr. Linderman has recovered well. Only a month after his surgery, he is preparing to return to Albania. There, his plate will be as full, if not fuller than it was before. Despite his health crises, he looks forward to intense and productive years among the sick and needy in his adopted home. “I have more to do yet,” he says.
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