Meet 48-year-old Professor Demosthenes, better known as Dimi. He has a Doctorate in Medicine, is a member of the UK’s Royal College of Physicians and is an Associate Professor in Critical Care Medicine. For the past five years he has been one of a team of dedicated doctors who run the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at the University Hospital of Thessaly in Larissa, Greece. Unlike a desk, or perhaps a factory floor, Dimi’s workplace is where life and death decisions are made as patients fight for their very lives. It is normally strictly off-limits to visitors, so I feel privileged to have been given special access. To the uninitiated eye, it seems a confused mess of beds, tubes, IV drips and life support machines, but the highly trained medical staff perform their duties with expert precision as they dart between bedsides to attend the critically ill. Their round-the-clock vigilance is made possible by splitting the specialised team into shifts. It is 21:00 hours and Dimi has just finished consultations with a fellow physician coming off duty. He needs to be fully informed about each patient’s progress because he is now responsible for their lives for the next thirty six hours.
He looks thoughtful as he considers the activity in the room.
“It is an important part of a patient’s recovery to try and ensure a good night’s sleep. This often involves hours of preparation before it becomes too late in the evening,” he explains. “Of course, the treatment regime may need to be changed at any time of the day or night, depending on circumstance,” he adds with obvious concern. “But we do our best to stabilise the patients so they can have an uninterrupted sleep.”
The ICU deals with all manner of conditions ranging from post-operative surgical care, trauma and disease. Not all cases are immediately obvious, however. One recent patient complained of weight loss, fatigue and a long-lasting fever. She was admitted with acute respiratory failure and multiple organ involvement.
“Finding out the cause was not easy and required a CT scan and a battery of pathological and serological tests,” he said. I put it to him that cases must be like a detective trying to hunt down clues to solve a crime.
“Yes, exactly!” he responded. “Of course, all our hopes and prayers go to each patient, but in clinical care it is only verifiable results that count.”
He went on to explain that an accurate diagnosis can often only be achieved through an informed and meticulous process of elimination – something extraordinarily difficult when the patient has a life-threatening condition and doctors are racing against the clock. “Despite being potentially fatal, the pneumonia causing her severe respiratory distress was only a secondary infection, making it extremely difficult for us to understand the real cause of her condition,” he continues. “Of all things, a rare parasite was found to be the culprit. It turns out that she was bitten by a sandfly while attending to her sick mother in a rural area of northern Greece and infected.” I reel at how simply our health can be compromised.
“Fortunately, we caught it in time and she made a full recovery,” he said with a distinguishable hint of pride.
“Money is there to pay bills, not define your profession. Doctors need to be where the patients are,” Dr Dimi Makris says. “The reward of being able to discharge fully recovered patients so that they can go back to their lives really is above all else.”
In addition to his vast clinical experience, Dimi is involved in academic research. One project took him to France for two years and involved a feasibility study into coil implants for patients suffering degraded lungs. Such cutting-edge research is infrequently done in Greece due to financial constraints but Greek doctors do their best and many write papers to add to the global pool of medical knowledge.
“Academic papers may be a boring read, but they are a vital tool of communication between doctors. Take the lady with the sandfly bite, for example. The incident is so uncommon in Greece that our team is writing it up for publication in a medical journal – that way other doctors may benefit from our experience if the same thing happens again.”
With so much riding on Dimi’s shoulders, I wondered how he manages his personal life.
“My wife is also a dedicated doctor, so we are both kept pretty busy. But we have a wonderful family who are very supportive.”
It is obvious that work does not stop him from being a devoted family man. Still in high school, his twin daughters are already fluent in Greek, French and English, just like their dad. His 14-year-old son is a bona fide national swimming champion with many gold medals to his name.
“I try to keep fit and have participated in the Athens marathon these past two years,” Dimi explains. “It allows me to take an active part in my son’s training.”
Despite his career accomplishments, Dimi does not enjoy a life of ease and plenty. An Australian intern fresh out of medical school could expect to make $60,000 in annual salary. In comparison, Dimi’s public service job at the ICU earns him around €2,500 a month – the equivalent of a miserly $40,000 a year. For medical professionals of such caliber, the lure of permanently going abroad must be considerable. Dimi, however, does not think only in terms of money.
“Money is there to pay bills, not define your profession. Doctors need to be where the patients are and the University Hospital here in Larrisa serves a large area of central Greece,” he explains. “And I’m not the only one who thinks this way. All the doctors and care providers in the ICU team do their job with passion because they know they provide an essential and irreplaceable service,” he said, before adding; “Honestly, the reward of being able to discharge fully recovered patients so that they can go back to their lives really is above all else.”
Needless to say, Dimi is so modest that he plays down any attempt at praise for all his efforts. However, it seems to me that in a world so keen to reward millions to football players so as to run around a grassy field after a ball for the purposes of amusement, society has forgotten who the true heroes are.