Jensen, Frush win 2012 McLendon-Thomas History of Medicine Essay Awards

Christopher Jensen wrote, “'And Polio Was a Nightmare:' Polio, UNC-Chapel Hill, And the North Carolina Memorial Hospital." Sarah Frush wrote, "Harmel's Happenstance: the First Blalock-Taussig Shunt and the Beginnings of Pediatric Cardiac Surgery."

Below, both Jensen and Frush describe how they chose their essay topics.

About "And Polio Was a Nightmare"
During the first half of the twentieth century, polio became an increasingly prevalent disease, both nationally and in North Carolina.  By the 1940s and 1950s, the state experienced nearly annual epidemics.  In 1952, the disease struck UNC’s campus directly, as an outbreak of polio afflicted a dozen student-athletes and sparked fear across campus.  University administrators took action to prevent the spread of the disease, including the cancelation of several football games.  In light of the concerns this disease provoked, the rise of polio sparked major fundraising efforts to support treatment and basic science research.  These efforts culminated with the release of an effective vaccine in 1955.  Thereafter, the incidence of polio declined dramatically.

Interestingly, this period, especially the major mid-century epidemics and the ultimate triumph over the disease, coincided with important developments in healthcare in North Carolina.  Most notably, the state expanded the public medical school at UNC to a 4-year, MD-granting institution and established the North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill in 1952, the same year the UNC campus experienced a polio outbreak.  Therefore, this essay seeks to explore how the polio epidemic impacted the state and University as well as to analyze the rendering of treatment for patients with polio at Memorial Hospital.  Using records from the University of North Carolina’s archives, contemporary newspapers, oral histories, and other documents, this essay argues that the hospital’s response to the problem of polio compares favorably to that of more well-established institutions and represents a major success for the fledgling hospital.

About "Harmel's Happenstance:  First Blalock-Taussig Shutn and the Beginnings of Pediatric Cardiac Surgery"

Dr. Merel Harmel was the anesthesiologist at the first Blalock-Taussig shunt ever performed—a surgery that changed the landscape of both pediatric and adult heart care forever.

Dr. Harmel is in his nineties and, even though he was recently recovering from some health issues, immediately agreed to meet me. He’s absolutely as sharp as ever, and humble too; his take on the entire experience is that “happenstance”—a series of things coming together—allowed for it to happen. As a young resident, he was the one to administer the open-drop ether and pulse tracking (by way of a finger) on the young cyanotic patient, getting her through a surgery that was the first of its kind and, to everyone’s surprise, successful.

I wanted to tell the story of that surgery with the perspective of someone who was there—and someone who played a less public role (after all, the job of the anesthesiologist is to make sure nothing goes wrong). With the incredible things we’re able to do in pediatric hearts these days, it’s important to remember that we got there by way of our predecessors’ intelligence, hard work and, perhaps most prominently, bravery.

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