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Force of Nature
Got a disaster? Rear Admiral David Rutstein MD’83 is your go-to guy.
Pohnpei Island, Micronesia . An 18-year-old man lies on an operating table. He has a ruptured Achilles tendon. Dr. David Rutstein is bent over an incision in the man’s leg, carefully sewing the two ends of the tendon together. Suddenly he notices the patient’s chest is damp. Looking up from his work, he sees water seeping through the suspended ceiling tiles and dripping onto the young man. As he watches, a bit of ceiling tile falls, then another, and then the whole piece drops and water and sodden tile cascade onto the patient’s chest. Rutstein holds up his hands and jumps back, instinctively trying to preserve the sterile field. The circulating nurse tosses a towel onto the patient, moves the tray of instruments out of the way, and waits for the doctor to pick up where he left off.
“Am I the only one who has a problem with what just happened?” Rutstein asks, incredulous.
“Oh, doctor,” the scrub nurse replies, “just be thankful this wasn’t an abdominal case.”
Today, more than 20 years and 7,700 miles separate him from that experience, but Rutstein tells this story with freshly amused disbelief, his Mount Rushmore features crinkling into a smile. “So I finished the operation,” he adds with a shrug. “It was a good lesson for me in being adaptable.”
It’s this sort of adaptability and sanguine, do-what’s-needed focus that Rutstein has consistently brought to his work, whether training native doctors in Micronesia or deploying to a devastated New Orleans. And it’s what he’s already bringing to bear on behalf of the American people in his new post as acting deputy surgeon general of the United States.
Attention: Now Leaving Comfort Zone
Rutstein didn’t always know he wanted to go into medicine. A psychology major at Hamilton College in the ’70s, he also played competitive soccer. One day on the field he suffered a knee injury and underwent surgery to repair it. The experience was pivotal. “When my knee healed I remember thinking, ‘Wow, medicine is transformative! I’m going to be a doctor,’” he says.
Keeping It Real
Alpert Medical School