The doctor repairs the damaged babies

June 16, 1993|By Peter Gorner | Peter Gorner,Chicago Tribune

Worshipful biographies of great surgeons are so common that one must really be special to merit attention.

This one is.

For 30 years, W. Hardy Hendren III, surgical chief at that mecca of pediatrics, the Children's Hospital of Boston, has been saving nature's smallest victims.

He creates order inside the chaotic bodies of babies tormented by catastrophic birth defects, rebuilding them from the bottom up.

So spectacular are the Harvard surgeon's results that colleagues at conferences have accused him of conning them with bogus before and-after slides.

G. Wayne Miller, a journalist and novelist, uses Dr. Hendren and an infant named Lucy Moore as the focal points of this poignant saga of suffering and salvation at the world's leading children's hospital.

Dr. Hendren, not surprisingly, comes across as a genius. Tough, blunt, a political reactionary and lambaster of lawyers, he has no bedside manner to speak of.

Yet he's so meticulous that he insists on cleaning and bandaging his tiny patients himself. "Hendren took intractable problems personally," Mr. Miller writes. "As if . . . the . . . deformities he took on had been put into existence with the specific purpose of taunting him."

Dr. Hendren has performed more than 20,000 operations over his long career, repairing deformities in children ranging from Saudi royalty to impoverished Americans, whom he treats for nothing.

A veritable operating machine, he is a generalist in an age of subspecialty, an accomplished surgeon of the heart, the intestines, stomach, liver, gall bladder, esophagus, pancreas, lungs, skin and reproductive organs. (Bones and nerves he leaves to others.)

"We have plenty of colon," he announces to his team on the morning he remakes Lucy Moore. "Seems to have a good blood supply, which will help if we have to make a vagina. . . . Have a functionless multicystic kidney to get rid of, but we'll do that when we turn her over. We'll have to take that ureter out as well."

Dr. Hendren describes what nature did to little Lucy as "anatomic anarchy"; her internal organs are ravaged by a condition known as cloaca.

The term is Greek for "sewer" and refers to an early stage of embryological development when wastes empty into a single chamber. A cloaca baby, which occurs only once in 50,000 births, is born without a vagina, anus or urethra.

"The most profound lesson was that once having decided to be cruel," Mr. Miller writes of cloaca, "nature could demonstrate an almost satanic creativity."

Before Dr. Hendren came along, such children invariably died. Not only can they be saved now, they can often be made normal, to grow up and have their own children.

In cases of "ambiguous genitalia," Dr. Hendren often must decide whether to make a baby a boy or a girl. He pioneered the making of new organs out of cannibalized body parts: Stomach tissue can enlarge a bladder, buttocks or colon can fashion genitalia.

Along with the history of pediatric surgery, Mr. Miller unabashedly deals with the raw emotions, the heroism and horror, and the hospital politics that surround an institution such as Boston Children's.

The only problem with Dr. Hendren, it seems, is his uniqueness. He's trained hundreds of surgeons, but none has his vision.

"When he's gone," a colleague says, "a lot of kids are going to be screwed up."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Work of Human Hands: Surgical Wonder at Children's Hospital"

Author: G. Wayne Miller

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 384 pages, $23.

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