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A Doctor Who Twists Arms

Part five of “The Good Life: Six BU Alums at Work in the World”


Name: Robert Carey

School: MED’54

The difference: New generations practice medicine in the world’s poorest places. Photo by Kathleen Dooher

The world is shrinking, as everyone knows, and the tragedies and injustices in off-limits neighborhoods and distant countries are not nearly as easy to gloss over, morally, as they once were. The six Boston University alumni we’re profiling this week have chosen work that brings them into contact with the neediest people in our global society. Yet they do not consider themselves extraordinary. They are responding to an urge to engage that feels both necessary and obvious. As one says simply, “There isn’t a choice.”

In 1977, cardiologist Robert Carey visited his friend Robert Thomas, a Catholic priest living in Oruro, Bolivia. He thought it would be a one-time trip, but Thomas’s invitation had been purposeful: the priest hoped that once Carey saw the rural region’s great poverty and desperate need for medical care, he would be moved to help. Since then, Carey has traveled to remote areas of Bolivia and Ecuador some 30 times.

Carey (MED’54) began by making hospital rounds and home visits with local doctors, capable clinicians who did their best with primitive equipment and methods. One, he recalls, correctly diagnosed typhoid fever by smelling the patient’s breath; the same doctor ascertained that another patient did not have diabetes by tasting her urine. On home visits, Carey met “people living in the 16th century,” he says. “They had dirt floors; they took the animals in at night to keep from losing them.”

Struck by the prevalence of Chagas disease, a debilitating parasitic condition affecting the heart, he returned with doctors, drugs, and medical equipment. “We put pacemakers into people so they could live normal lives,” he says.

According to Thomas, local people thought Carey was a miracle worker. “I saw people who had only enough strength to get to the hospital walk out in a week ready to get back to their farmwork,” he has said. “They were people who had given up hope, and some for years had not moved from their houses.”

Such miracles were the product of Carey’s medical skills and a host of other abilities, not least of which was the power of persuasion. He recruited doctors who paid their own way to travel with him, solicited manufacturers for pacemakers and other devices, and raised money, much of it given by the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74), longtime chairman of BU’s Board of Trustees. He gained the cooperation of Bolivian and Ecuadorian medical and government officials and managed to get equipment past corrupt customs officials who threatened to confiscate it. He even persuaded the MED Class of 1954 to endow a summer travel fund so that students interested in international health could go to poor, underserved countries and provide care.

“Logistically, the trips themselves are a big deal,” says Lahey Clinic cardiologist David Martin, who first traveled with Carey in 1991 and “got totally hooked, fanatical. I’ve gone back every year since. Last year there were 25 of us, with bags of supplies. Bob has given the whole thing structure. And he’s good at making friends. He morally twists arms to get people to give him what he needs.”

Carey credits himself only with being “a gregarious guy.” But it’s clear that his enthusiasm is contagious. As a student, Jatin Roper (MED’04) spent a day in Ecuador shadowing him. “He was smiling, jovial, excited about what he was doing,” Roper recalls. Making home visits, Carey was — in his 70s — “always the first one of us up the mountain.”

Local doctors and staff now sustain the work, with assistance from American doctors, the Lahey Clinic, the Boston-based Project Pacer International, and other people and groups persuaded by Carey’s example and his moral arm-twisting.

“He showed me that a great doctor has humanity, compassion, charisma, energy, intelligence,” Roper says, “and that great doctors don’t retire. I hope to follow his example.”

Natalie Jacobson McCracken can be reached at nmccrack@bu.edu.

Click here to read part one. Click here to read part two. Click here to read part three. Click here to read part four.

“The Good Life” was originally published in the summer 2008 edition of Bostonia.

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