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Heart surgeon Becker leads team effort to help kids in Mexico


Pediatric cardiologist and South Dakota native Thomas Becker decided to start his pediatric cardiologist career at Mercy Medical Center – Des Moines after learning about the hospital’s leadership role in a heart surgery program for needy children from Mexico. Becker got involved with the Variety Children’s Lifeline program in 1993, and has led the team of Mercy doctors and nurses and volunteer interpreters to Campeche and Merida on the Yucatan peninsula for five of the past 10 years. During these annual trips, 30 children are selected from more than 300 to be flown to Mercy to receive heart surgery. In April, Becker received the 2005 Sir James Carreras Award from Variety International for his dedication and skill in the field of pediatrics medicine.

What drew you into pediatric medicine?

I knew early on in medical school that I enjoyed taking care of the pediatric patients more than adults. Kids seem to be more resilient, and the gratifying thing about pediatrics is that we can make most of them better. It’s also fun because they come in once as a baby and then you see them grow up.

Why did you choose to start your career in Des Moines?

While I was doing my fellowship through Indiana University, I was at a meeting at Mayo Clinic when I met Dr. John Gay, a former Mercy pediatric cardiologist, and he got me interested in practicing here. He told me about the Yucatan program as one of the real benefits to private practice with Mercy. It was a fascinating thing that most practices don’t do. Mercy’s investment in the program is incredible, and there’s a whole group of people who make this thing happen.

How rare is the Variety Lifeline program?

I think there are only about 10 programs that are Lifeline sponsors. People here started doing this in 1979, and at the time, Mercy was one of two core hospitals participating.

What was your first trip in 1995 like for you?

It was overwhelming. When you come to the clinic at 8:30 in the morning, all 65 families that you are going to see that day are there waiting. You see them all and think, “How are we ever going to get through this clinic?” And the patients don’t speak English.

How are the trips organized to maximize the time you spend there?

We see patients Monday and Tuesday in Campeche, we travel Wednesday and then see patients in Merida on Thursday and Friday. During those four days we’ll see 250 to 300 children. About half of those are children we’ve already operated on or have seen before.

In the clinic, I have someone who speaks Spanish in each room seeing the patients and preparing them. When I go in, they tell me about the patient and I’ll ask them some questions and they’ll interpret. I’ll review the data and examine the patient and make a decision, tell them what I want to tell them and then go to the next room, where they have a patient ready. It’s a busy week.

What other challenges do you encounter in working with these families?

Medical care is fractionalized in Mexico so that only the people with money get medical help. We work with the equivalent of a county hospital there, and a lot of times, the kids come to us pretty late, whereas we would have operated on them earlier if they would have been born here. We’re only down there once a year and they’re already six months old, and sometimes they’re too late.

What happens when there are more than 30 kids who need surgery in a given year?

It’s very difficult. That’s the hardest part about this program, and nobody likes that. Some don’t need surgery right away, so we will try to wait, and sometimes, you have to say, “They’re not going to get surgery.” We try to select the children who have the best opportunity to have a good outcome. It’s hard to think of it in terms of the ones you can’t help. You have to remember that the ones you are helping wouldn’t otherwise have surgery.

Can your job sometimes be emotionally draining?

There are a lot of doctors who say, “I couldn’t possibly do what you do,” and I say, “I couldn’t possibly do what you do.” Fortunately, there are different temperaments and people who like different parts of medicine. Some people wonder if it’s hard to see the kids cry and be in pain. We try to minimize things that cause them pain with medication, and we have people who entertain them and distract them and help them forget what is going on. Some of that difficult part goes away when you know that they’re going to get better.

Does your job make you appreciate the health of your three daughters?

Being in medicine and knowing how many things can go wrong, you’re very thankful to have healthy kids. My wife, with her background as an OB and me being in pediatrics, we thought of all the things that could go bad.

What’s it like to have two doctors in the family?

My wife (Caroline Boehnke-Becker) quit practicing about five years ago to stay home with our girls. She got more involved in our church teaching classes, and she is now taking seminary classes to get her master’s in divinity. Our lives were extremely busy when we were both practicing, with us both being on call. She would get up two or three times during the night to deliver babies.

What do you do to unwind?

I try to play golf – not very well. We built a new house near Cumming a couple of years ago, so landscaping projects are always there to do. Plus we keep busy with our kids.

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