For Michael Drusano, catching pneumonia while in Venezuela as a 17-year-old high school exchange student changed his life.
On the verge of flying back to the United States because of how sick he was, friends of his physician father — who lived in the area and were doctors — offered to take care of him.
Drusano, who always wanted a career that would impact society, was moved by the dedication his father’s friends had to make him better. Thus, it only seemed right that he would do his best to pay the “good deed forward in life.”
After majoring in international relations at Johns Hopkins University, Drusano decided he would follow in his father’s footsteps: go to med school, enter into a post-baccalaureate program, and pursue what had sparked his interest at a very young age — medicine.
“As someone who had the fortune to be born in a relatively meritocratic developed country to two parents who cared about my education and future, that’s practically hitting the lottery,” he said. “That somewhat obligates one to do something to make life better for others.’’
Now, the 34-year-old doctor – who attended medical school at the University of Maryland and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital where he specialized in family medicine – works as a physician at Miami Beach Community Health Center and travels the world treating medically underserved populations.
His passion has led him to travel to eight countries since the end of his first year in medical school: Botswana, Kenya, Cambodia, South Africa, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Haiti — which despite being nearly murdered during his first visit – he has returned five times since.
Specializing in family medicine allowed Drusano to receive the training he needs to treat patients in the United States and abroad. Although he admits that family medicine is a challenge — “a jack of all trades, but master of none” — he is able to treat a broad spectrum of people.
“By going the underserved route, my training has the greatest impact and I knew that early on in my career,” he said. “The underserved populations definitely need it more. I’ve always been an explorer, curious about other people, and the world around me. Global health just seemed to be a good fit. It’s where my interests intersect.”
Drusano has treated a variety of conditions: HIV, AIDS, tuberculosis, gunshot wounds, car accident injuries, machete attack wounds, earthquake wounds, landmine injuries, burns, typhoid, brain and spinal cord injuries, malaria. That’s in addition to the usual: hypertension, diabetes, emphysema, congestive heart failure, heart attacks, lacerations, cholesterol and various infections.
He also has delivered numerous babies, amputated an arm after an earthquake injury, treated torture survivors and cared for sexually assaulted and mutilated women.
It’s not easy. Abroad, hospitals and treatment facilities lack most of the medical equipment and medications necessary to properly treat individuals. He has had to improvise on more than one occasion.
“I’ve learned how to stitch quickly and how to do more with less,” he said. “The proper practice of medicine is like walking a tightrope while juggling steak knives and cats.”
Drusano has had many memorable moments, but one of his favorites happened in Haiti. It was Christmas Day in 2011: He saved a pregnant woman, delivered her baby, and successfully brought the baby back to life after the newborn had a pulse – but was not breathing – due to meconium aspiration, stool present in the lungs before or during delivery.
Had Drusano not been there, he said the delivery would have been a “sheer disaster” because there was no one trained at the facility, and there was no time.
“Having the privilege to come into someone’s life is one of the best parts about being a doctor because you can make the good great and the bad less bad,” he said.
But, global health is not always a celebration.
On Drusano’s trip to Somalia in 2012, he witnessed three neonatal deaths in a 12-hour timeframe and an obstetric catastrophe. When a baby girl was delivered and not breathing, Drusano worked on her for two hours and 45 minutes — with only a bag mask, oxygen and a hot water bottle — until another American doctor gently grabbed him by the arm and told him that he had done everything he could, and it was OK to stop trying.
“I had to stand there with my stethoscope on the baby’s chest waiting and listening for her heart rate to drift slowly down to zero,” he said.
Overwhelmed, Drusano went back to his living quarters, slowly dropped to the floor — his back against the door and his head between his knees — and cried for five minutes. He felt he had failed his patients.
“I was wondering what my purpose for even being there was,” he said. “I was supposed to be preventing things like this from happening. Instead, I felt like a passive bystander. But, I pulled myself together and went back downstairs. No time for tears. Other patients needed help.”
Drusano says being a doctor is a very satisfying career, but it comes with a certain amount of heartbreak. He says it is part of the job, especially in global health.
“Nothing has affected my drive to do what I do,” he said. “Some of these events even strengthen my drive and stoke my interest. You can’t let things consume your soul. But, allowing your heart to freeze over is not an option either.”
Though Drusano says everything in life involves some risk — even driving to work every morning — he doesn’t let any of that stop him from pursuing his passion.
“Life is for living,” he said. “Fear only gets in the way of that.”