It was a little past 7 on January 5, 2012 when Dr. McKay McKinnon finished his massive operation on Nguyen Duy Hai at the Ho Chi Minh France-Vietnam Hospital (FV). After a marathon surgery of 11 hours and 23 minutes, the 82-kilogram tumor that Hai had suffered from for years was successfully removed.
The tall and slim American doctor, hailing from Chicago, slowly walked out of the operating room. “There will be one surgery for My Dung tomorrow, and another for Sa Ly at Cho Ray hospital the day after that,” he must have been telling himself.
“Action speaks louder than words”
Dr McKinnon did not appear at the press conference held later by FV Hospital, neither did he seem to care about his historic success, a story which made headlines in almost all of the biggest local newspapers the day after Hai’s surgery. Readers who had followed Hai’s story wrote in and showed their admiration and gratefulness to the doctor who came all the way to Vietnam to save Hai.
By then, the media had yet to know that he was the calm and quiet type, who seemed not to enjoy being in the limelight.
His schedule in Vietnam during the first days of 2012 was hectic, with three major and intensive surgeries on three consecutive days. According to people around him, he worked quickly and efficiently, and tirelessly moved between hospitals to examine one patient or visit another.
For a person nearly 70 years old, his speed and energy even seemed to overwhelm the young filmmaking crew from American production company Morningstar Entertainment (based in California), who followed him to film the surgeries for their medical documentaries.
So it was in that fashion that local reporters tried to ambush him in the hospital for an interview, only to find he was ahead of them and was somewhere else. “Well, to me, action speaks louder than words,” he said when asked why he seemed to not be so fond of the media.
A plastic surgeon working at Saint Joseph Hospital and Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Illinois (America), McKinnon has long been known as one of the best surgeons for cases thought impossible to perform, by colleagues around the world. He has had years of experience treating tumors and has removed hundreds of them successfully.
His best known cases include Lori Hoogewind, an American woman with a 90.7-kilogram tumor or Lucica Bunghez, from Romania, who had an 80-kilogram one.
McKinnon’s most serious tumor cases were usually turned down by big hospitals, even in America, who thought removing these extremely large lumps was too dangerous to the patients’ life. Over the years, the surgeon has saved hundreds of patients and returned them to normal lives and appearances. Rarely giving any interviews about his work, he has quietly and tirelessly concentrated on his work, with a confidence built by years of training and experiences.
I don’t like giving up
Without him, many of these patients would still be living in misery with their severe illnesses, or perhaps not even alive. More aware of this than anyone else, McKinnon returned to Vietnam for the second time this January to save Hai, after his first attempt last November was unsuccessful.
“To not have returned would have at least suggested that Hai’s life was not really worth saving, that his surgery was indeed too complicated for Vietnamese hospitals, that the local “committee of experts” was right all along and I either made a mistake or lost my courage,” the doctor told reporters when asked why he decided to come again.
Last November, after Amanda Schumacher of the American charity foundation Tree of Life contacted him and asked him to help Hai, Dr. McKinnon came to Vietnam for the first time. With him came a highly trained operating assistant, ready to undertake a massive surgery in spite of only knowing about Hai’s condition, the available hospital infrastructure, surgery equipment and staff through e-mail exchanges. “It was a challenge working in an unknown system and country with uncertain assistance,” he said.
Yet the doctor realized he could not do the surgery and that the decision had been made before he came. Failing to persuade the hospital Hai was staying at to assist in the surgery, he was in tears as he stood by Hai’s bed and promised to do the best he could to save him.
Going back to America, he continued his e-mail exchanges with Sam Seyadoussane, Robin King Austin, and others, to find a way out for Hai. Their latter two’s effort finally paid off when Cho Ray and FV Hospital both agreed to take Hai in. “Once I start doing something, I don’t want to give up easily. That isn’t like me at all,” he shared.
McKinnon said cases like Duy Hai are both charity and a professional challenge, especially when many say that success is unlikely. . Most importantly, a doctor’s responsibility and conscience cannot allow him to turn his back on a dying patient. “To be honest, I always feel great compassion for these patients. I know if nobody is willing to do anything for them, they will die a horrible death. Any doctor would act like me.”
30 years of doing charity
Doctor McKinnon started offering his volunteer services abroad in 1981, mostly in Central America, where he performed cleft lip and palate surgeries, and treated some tumor cases as well.
Each year he spent one week on this mission. Hundreds of young children in Choluteca, Honduras have their normal smiles again thanks to him. On these trips, it is not uncommon for him to perform more-than-ten-hour surgeries for 5-6 consecutive days. Consequently, his schedule in Ho Chi Minh in January “was not that terrible”.
“Part of the reason for my providing any volunteer surgery is to teach local doctors surgical skills they are unfamiliar with and to encourage a system of helping even those who can’t pay. That is fundamental to why people should become doctors,” he said.
In addition to these surgeries, there have been other massive ones in America, Romania and Vietnam after which he either waved any fee or reduced most of it, although some could have cost up to a million dollars. “To whom would I submit a surgical fee when none of them could pay it, nor do they have insurance?” he asked the reporter.
Not just in developing countries, many patients in America struggle to pay for health care and treatment, unable to have surgeries or too poor to afford their hospital fees.
Last year, McKinnon performed two operations on Ed Port from Ohio (USA), a patient who suffered from Neurofibromatosis and had a large tumor covering the right side of his face.
McKinnon removed the massive tumor weighing down the man’s head and helped rebuild his face. Like many people in the USA, Ed was battling medical insurance companies even though he had lost the sight in his right eye and the tumor was ‘eating’ away at the bones in his face, insurance companies claimed his condition was ‘cosmetic’ and withheld assistance.
“The cost of his surgery was estimated at almost US$1 million. So, he and his supporters had been fundraising and Dr. McKinnon helped him by reducing his fees. Thankfully, he finally found an insurance company who was willing to help out a little,” Andrew Nock, a filmmaker from Morningstar Entertainment, the production team who filmed Ed’s story and his surgery, told Tuoi Tre.
“But really it didn’t start like that. I am a plastic surgeon and I have done surgeries for years to make a living”, he said frankly about his volunteer work during his long medical career.
After returning from overseas trips, a typical day of Dr. McKinnon starts with a breakfast at home with his family, then work at Saint Joseph and Children’s Memorial in the morning. He sees patients at his private office not far from there in the afternoon, and then has dinner at home.
“In my free time I like going to see the ballet or opera. My three children still live in Chicago, so I go and see things with them. I play tennis, squash and golf when the weather is fine.”
The doctor said he would be willing to come back to Vietnam to contribute to its medical development if he is asked, as “Vietnamese surgery needs to make progress to compare with even regional standards,” he said.