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Doctor lost his life rescuing two children — but his skills saved hundreds more

Beach areLakeside Michigan where Dr. Donald Liu pediatric surgedrowned trying save two young kayakers.  Phoby Gregg Rizzo

Beach area in Lakeside, Michigan where Dr. Donald Liu, pediatric surgeon drowned trying to save two young kayakers. Photo by Gregg Rizzo

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Updated: September 9, 2012 6:12AM

My son Mark is joyful, smart, stubborn and often hilarious. Because I am blindly proud of him, I’m convinced he’ll be a Supreme Court justice or a Nobel Prize recipient. As the only grandchild in mine or my wife’s family, he is surrounded by people who believe he will be a Nobel Prize recipient and a Supreme Court Justice.

This ridiculously overblown praise of an almost-3-year-old who has not yet figured out how to take off his shirt is my way of describing the enormous impact he’s had on my life. Since he was born on Sept. 20, 2009, every day I’ve spent with Mark — except one — has been wonderful.

That one day came when he was just 37 days old. Mark had been diagnosed with a rare stomach disorder and needed surgery. My wife and I rushed to Edward Hospital in Naperville, where we were fortunate enough to get one of the country’s best surgeons: Dr. Donald Liu.

Last Sunday, Liu drowned saving the life of two boys who had been knocked out of their kayaks by the waves of Lake Michigan. Police say Liu leapt into the water and helped the two 12-year-old boys to shore. But a rip current grabbed the doctor before he could get out.

Dr. Liu’s death was an act of courage we can all measure ourselves against. Certainly, the family of those two boys will never forget his actions. But for hundreds of other families, including mine, he’d been a hero for many years. He was the stranger who saved our son’s life.

is wrong

A few weeks after Mark was born, he started throwing up. Not spitting up, but gagging, turning red and projectile vomiting everything in his stomach 10 times a day. Even as first-time parents, we knew something was wrong.

When our doctor confirmed Mark had lost 12 ounces, it set off alarms. An ultrasound found he had a condition called pyloric stenosis. It’s a rare disorder that only affects three in 1,000 babies, mostly first-born sons. Essentially, the pyloric muscle at the end of the stomach gets too big, so food can’t move to the intestines. It keeps backing up and then there’s only one way — up — for anything to get out.

Once doctors spotted the overgrown muscle, they told my wife to take Mark to the hospital immediately. Within hours, we were watching doctors at Edward hook our 6-week-old up to an IV.

The surgery was scheduled for the next morning. We were told they were bringing in the best pediatric surgeon in the area — a Chicago doctor who provided pediatric services at Edward. We were very lucky to get him, we were told.

Superstar surgeon

By that time Dr. Liu performed Mark’s surgery, he was internationally recognized for his expertise in minimally invasive surgery for children. The father of three joined the University of Chicago Department of Surgery in 2001 and was named section chief of pediatric surgery six years later. He started working once a week at Edward around 2005 and became the hospital’s lead pediatric surgeon in 2007.

While he remained on staff at the University of Chicago, he was in Naperville every week. It wasn’t uncommon for him to perform five surgeries on his day at Edward, according to Diane Blevins, the hospital’s director of Children’s Services. While there, Liu helped the hospital expand its pediatric services, offering advice, expertise and insight.

“Whenever we wanted to do something, we didn’t call the University of Chicago — we called Dr. Liu,” Blevins said.

Meeting a hero

When I heard the first news stories this week about the surgeon who had drowned, I didn’t make the connection to our son. When I saw Liu’s picture — the distinct glasses and the happy-go-lucky smile — I immediately flashed back to the pre-op room at Edward.

It was around 2 p.m. and Mark was lying on a ridiculously tiny gurney when Dr. Liu walked in. I wish I remembered more about him, but we only met him for a few minutes during one of the most stressful times in our lives. I know when he came in, he was smiling. Who knows how many other children he had worked on just that morning.

“This is a man that would wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning, be in the operating room in 10 or 15 minutes, literally save a child’s life who was bleeding to death from trauma,” said John Alverdy, vice chairman of surgery at the University of Chicago Medicine. “Then he would go home and go back to sleep. An hour later he would wake up, come to the OR, operate for five hours, maybe grab some lunch, go to another hospital and save another life.”

My wife remembers that Liu explained the surgery so we could understand it. He made us feel that this was routine for him, which it was. Then, he leaned down and talked to Mark. It made us feel safe.

When I heard about Dr. Liu’s death, I was returning from our first family vacation. It was a trip filled with memories we’ll always have because of Dr. Liu’s work.

I’m sure he wasn’t the only doctor who could have performed my son’s surgery, and he didn’t do it alone: a team of talented doctors diagnosed my son and helped in his recovery. But the fact remains that Mark Hanley is alive today because of Dr. Donald Liu. And so are hundreds of others.

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