On NC Medicine

“Monday Musings” for Monday December 1, 2014

Volume IV. No. 49/204


Surviving Cancer, Mao Tso Tung’s Parkinson Disease, NC’s Distinguished family of Dr. George Hatem

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

North Carolina is enriched and blessed by many distinguished families, among them the Hatems and the Netter-Robersons.

My late wife and I went to China in 1979 as guests of Dr. George Hatem of Roanoke Rapids, NC, the personal physician to Mao Tse-Tung. Mao had Parkinson’s Disease and Dr. Hatem– Ma Haide in Chinese–was trying to get the latest medical information for his boss. Our group which included quite a few colleagues from Duke, with the late Ewald W. “Bud” Busse, Duke Chair, Department of Psychiatry and later Dean of Duke Medical School, was treated royally. In 1980, I wrote a series of articles on my experience in China, which were published in Shackler’s Medical Bulletin. I will include some of the stories in my forthcoming review of Francine’s book. The story of Dr. Hatem is one of an almost native Tar Heel (he came to North Carolina at age three and graduated from University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill). He received his medical education in Europe and ended up going to China where he started the program of Barefoot Doctors. The US program of physician assistant was copied from Dr. Hatem’s work in China. He continued his meteoric ascension in Chinese bureaucracy and became personal physician to Mao.

While in China, Dr. Hatem arranged for our group to visit many of the Chinese medical facilities, including the University of Beijing Medical School. The entire Anatomy Department of this, the largest medical school in China, consisted of a few skeletons and the CIBA Geigy Collection of the American Surgeon and the work of its illustrious medical illustrator, Dr. George Netter with his drawings. The late Dr. Netter is the father of Raleigh’s Francine Netter Roberson. Dr. Netter was the best known doctor not only in America, but in the entire world because his drawings and medical illustrations of human body were used in every medical school throughout the globe. I have always been enamored with languages and words. 57 years ago, while a student at The George Washington University School of Medicine, I fell in love with Netter’s drawings. I loved (and still do) memorizing facts and Netters’ drawings gave me visual enhancement to facilitate memorization of gross anatomy and organ systems, making the dissection of the cadaver so much more meaningful. Dr. Netter is enshrined in the memory of millions of medical doctors throughout the world.

Cancer of Colon

Life is a gift. It is precious. There are many ways to be aware of life, but none is as effective as encountering the landscape of death forcefully focused upon by a serious illness. I had such an experience 11 years ago. It was discovered that I had a very serious form of cancer of colon, Stage III, with 11 nodes. The treatment with chemotherapy not only caused hair loss, but it ravaged my memory. To battle the effect of chemotherapy, I memorized libretti of Lorenzo Da Ponti every night, and got my brain back (see below published in Psychiatric News).

Mental Exercises Counter Chemotherapy
Psychiatric News
Volume 42 Number 7 page 27-27

I am writing with regard to the excellent article “Cognitive Damage May Appear After Treatment Ends” in the January 5 issue. Being a survivor of colon cancer, stage III with 11 nodes, and having gone through the ritual of “cutting” (surgery), “burning” (radiation therapy), and “poisoning” (chemotherapy), I can attest to the danger of drastic decrease in cognitive functioning with standard cancer treatment. The chemotherapy agents “carpet bomb” all cells; they do not spare the very sensitive neurons. I wish research would accelerate on finding chemotherapeutic agents that target cancer cells only and not the rest of the body.

As a patient, it is imperative to be aware of this cognitive devastation and devise and implement measures to counter the poisoning of the brain and killing of brain cells. My strategy was to devote an hour or two each night before going to bed to memorize material of interest. I memorized many of Lorenzo Da Ponti’s rich repertoire of Latin poetry, Greek texts by Aristotle and Homer, and the epic poetry of Persian poets Ferdowsi and Rumi. In my experience, memorizing is a very effective method of keeping neurons exercised and alive, and I felt I was successful in warding off the ills and side effects of my treatment.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.


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