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Medical Marvel #1

Eighty-nine-year-old conductor with heart problems. Too old and sick for surgery.

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David Labovitz and Howard Cohen.  

Patient: David Labovitz, 89, conductor
Doctor: Howard Cohen, cardiologist, Lenox Hill Hospital
Patient’s Wife : Esther Labovitz

David: I’d been avoiding the problem for some time. Once you take time off, you never know what’s going to happen. But I really wasn’t feeling very well.

Cohen: Mr. Labovitz—the Maestro, as I like to call him—suffered a major coronary attack. His prospects were dismal: His valves were leaking, his heart was barely pumping, and his lungs were filled with fluid. He badly needed an angioplasty, but given his age—89 at the time—any surgical procedure would have been high-risk. The attending doctors sedated Labovitz and placed him on a respirator while they considered how to proceed. I was approached to see whether I could do an angioplasty with a device I helped develop called the TandemHeart. It’s an external heart pump that’s inserted through an artery in the leg and allows afflicted heart muscles to rest after heart attacks or during surgery. The idea is to support the heart—in a way that minimizes further trauma—so even if the heart stops working during surgery we can keep the patient alive until we fix the problem. But Mr. Labovitz was elderly and very sick, and even with the device, the procedure was dangerous. Because he was on the respirator, the consent for the surgery fell to his wife.

Esther: Dr. Cohen said the surgery would be a big risk. It was frightening, but it seemed like the best thing to do.

Cohen: While Mr. Labovitz was supported by the pump, we were able to do complex maneuvers within the artery and get it opened. If we had done a full-fledged surgery to accomplish that, he would have been at far greater risk. This way, everything went great.

Esther: Dr. Cohen came back afterward and said it had gone well, and we’d just have to wait and see how David’s heart picked up when they took out the device. I said, “I know it will. He’s got a strong will.”

Cohen: Mr. Labovitz’s heart was able to resume pumping on its own, and he made a full recovery with no major complications. It’s rare when you get to do something for a person who makes such an amazing contribution to society. He’s incredibly alert and has a lot of vigor. There’s 90, and then there’s 90. He’s the former.

Esther: David and I celebrated his 90th birthday last August with family and friends. And David is conducting again— most recently a Bach Oratorio and Bach’s Cantatas and Motets.

Cohen: Toward the end of the year I got a letter from the Maestro asking if I would do him the honor of hearing him perform the Bach Christmas Oratorio at Christ and St. Stephen’s Church on the West Side. I said I’d love to. I remember I walked up to the Maestro—this was the first time I’d ever seen him standing up, and he was a very elegant figure, I gotta tell you; he’s got whitish hair and looks very distinguished, particularly in a tuxedo—I said, “Maestro, you probably don’t recognize me.” And he said to me, “I’m virtually blind, so of course I don’t recognize you, but I do recognize your voice. You’re Dr. Cohen, aren’t you? I hope you’re going to enjoy the concert; it’s a little long.” Do you believe that? A three-hour concert. Ninety years old.

David: There’s an old German tune. It says, “Himmel und Erde mussen vergehen, aber die Musik bleibt immer stehen.” In other words, Heaven and Earth may have to go, but the music remains forever.


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