The Indelible Bond Between Doctor and Patient

It was a Saturday morning on Staten Island, and 10-year-old Sean Farley was in his Little League uniform, determined to play ball for the Snug Harbor All Stars that day, despite a strange and persistent pain in his chest. An avid athlete almost since he’d learned to play catch with his parents, Brian and Susan, and his three siblings, Michael, Lauren, and Sara, the fifth-grader thought that even if he was feeling a little off, he’d still be able to manage a home run and stick to playing first base.

Sean Farley at age 10 at bat in Little League
Sean Farley – age 10

His mother remembers that although he had mentioned discomfort in his chest the prior night, he was so committed to playing the game that neither of them imagined anything should stop him. They agreed that showing up for his Little League team would remain his weekend’s top priority. Then, in their free time on Sunday, they’d visit his doctor to quickly get his pain addressed once and for all. “He was a good athlete, and he wanted to play, so I didn’t think there was any extreme urgency,” Susan recalls.

At the pediatric office, Sean was taken in for a chest x-ray. While he and his mother sat chatting and awaiting the results over the next hour, they noticed that the waiting room was suddenly alive with the commotion of doctors and nurses running in all directions with intent and sober looks about their faces. Someone in the building was clearly having a medical emergency, and Sean and Susan exchanged glances of relief that they were only there for his minor chest pain. Then, one of the nurses approached them with an especially alarming urgency about her. Sitting down alongside them, she asked Sean “Can you breathe?” When he answered “yes” – seemingly perplexed by her question – she explained to him that he had a collapsed lung and would have to be rushed by ambulance to an emergency room right away. Although Sean had no recent injuries and had not experienced physical trauma, he was now facing a medical emergency with no resolution immediately in sight.

In the emergency room, doctors tried in vain to re-inflate his lung. Meanwhile, his devastated mother phoned his father and struggled to maintain her composure in the midst of all the chaos, for fear that her son’s already precarious condition would be affected by the sight of her panicking.

That was when thoracic surgeon Loren Harris, MD, FACS, FCCP, entered the scene. Speaking calmly to Susan and reassuring her that her son would be fine, Dr. Harris explained that next-day surgery would fix Sean’s collapsed lung and allow him to return to the normalcy of his 10-year-old life within a week.

“He was extremely reassuring right away,” Sean reflects on Dr. Harris’ initial consultation with him and his mother about the surgery. “I was young, and I really didn’t understand it, and he was able to take a really serious complex medical issue and explain it to a 10-year-old.”

As recalled by Susan Farley, Dr. Harris’ explanation for Sean’s collapsed lung was that for “tall, young, skinny kids who tend to have growth spurts, sometimes their lungs expand quickly and the blebs [or small air blisters] on their lungs can pop.” This popping, Dr. Harris added, is “what causes this collapsed lung” – also known as a spontaneous pneumothorax. Dr. Harris made it his mission to educate Brian, Susan, and Sean as much as he could on the spot about Sean’s condition and upcoming surgery, and to make himself available by cell phone for additional questions in the time before and after the surgery. He detailed his approach to CHEST staff: “I sat down with Susan and Brian and explained to them exactly what we were going to do, how we were going to do it, when we were going to do it – and that this was not something that was going to shorten Sean’s life or make it more difficult.”

The Farley family: Michael, Sean, Lauren, Susan, Sarah, Brian (from left to right).

As a long-time leading member of the CHEST Foundation, alongside his wife – CHEST Foundation President Doreen J. Addrizzo-Harris, MD, FCCP – Dr. Harris’ commitment to patient education and emotional support reflected a pledge that he and other Foundation members make at the CHEST Annual Meeting each year: To help close the gap between patient and clinician, to improve communications between patients and their health-care providers, and to create better patient outcomes through their efforts. “The best part of being a surgeon is going that extra mile with a patient,” Dr. Harris recently said. “I still get a card from that one guy I operated on fifteen years ago, and every year I get a card from him on the anniversary of his operation.”

Loren Harris, MD, FCCP, Sean’s surgeon, and Doreen Addrizzo-Harris, MD, FCCP

It should perhaps come as no surprise, then, that Dr. Harris remained in conversation with the Farley family following Sean’s surgery in fifth grade. With Dr. Harris on his side, Sean, of course, emerged fully recovered from the collapsed lung. When he was released from the hospital after a stay of just under a week, Dr. Harris personally wrote his Little League coach to explain why it was safe for Sean to get back on the field. The Farleys were deeply impressed that a surgeon would advocate on Sean’s behalf with someone whose approval Sean valued so much.

Then Dr. Harris amazed the Farleys even more by providing Susan counsel through an illness with which she was diagnosed, becoming a close friend and confidante of theirs, and showing up for Sean when, six years after his surgery, he was diagnosed with a second collapsed lung while . in preseason training for basketball. Demonstrating his unique commitment again to patient education and emotional support as a CHEST Foundation member, Dr. Harris explained to the Farleys that a second collapsed lung is common in cases like Sean’s and should not be cause for worry. He wasted no time in performing surgery to get the now teenage Sean in tip-top shape. Susan reflected recently on Dr. Harris’ second feat in saving Sean’s life: “We’re eternally grateful for [Dr. Harris] fixing up Sean twice. I said ‘Is there a chance that this could happen again?’ and he said ‘Not unless he grows a third lung.’ And, that was when I knew I could relax a little.”

The Farleys know that throughout each of their health challenges, the CHEST Foundation played a heroic role by instilling in Dr. Harris the values that he demonstrated as their surgeon and, ultimately, family doctor. Through its support for community outreach and educational programs, CHEST Foundation members have helped the Farleys and many other families from diverse backgrounds feel empowered in navigating potentially terrifying health issues.

As of this writing, the Foundation has provided more than $12 million in funding for clinical research and community-based programs over a 23-year period and across more than 60 countries. Much of that funding benefits underrepresented communities that otherwise would have extremely limited access to the knowledge and care they need to survive their own medical emergencies.

Susan Farley is hopeful that many more patients and caregivers will have the opportunity to experience the CHEST Foundation’s resources as she and her family have had. Watching her son complete his master’s degree in accounting at Fairfield University, and remembering that his second successful surgery led to him playing basketball in the championship game his senior year of college, she feels that she can’t thank Dr. Harris and the CHEST Foundation enough. “He and his family have a very special place in our hearts,” she says. “If we can help other families by sharing our story, that’s something we’ll always be proud to do. We are eternally grateful.”

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