Thursday, June 11, 2009

My Heroes: Charles R. Drew, M.D.

I was introduced to my next hero when I worked at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in their Early Intervention Program for people living with HIV and AIDS in the mid-1990's. As a new employee, during orientation I learned about Dr. Charles R. Drew and his lifesaving work in the field of blood transfusions.

Charles R. Drew was born in Washin
gton DC in 1904. He excelled at school and athletics. He attended Amherst College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1926. He spend two years after graduation teaching biology and serving as Athletics Director at Morgan State University in Baltimore. He then turned his attention to medical school, enrolling in McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He graduated in 1933 second in his class, a member of the Medical Honorary Society, with Master of Surgery and Doctor of Medicine degrees.

While at McGill, he studied under an anatomy professor by the name of Dr. John Beattie whose interest was in blood transfusions. In 1938, Dr. Drew received a Rockefeller Foundation Research Fellowship to attend Columbia University, where he rekindl
ed his interest in the study of blood transfusions. While at Columbia, he developed a technique that increased the time blood could be stored by separating the plasma from the whole blood. By 1940, he published his dissertation entitled "Banked Blood: A Study in Blood Preservation" and became the first African-American to receive a Doctorate of Medicine degree from Columbia University.

At this time, World War II had begun and Dr. Drew's discovery of how to bank blood for future use caught the attention of medical personnel in Britain. In addition to establishing the first blood bank in New York, in 1940 Dr. Drew also supervised the "Plasma for Britain" project which helped stockpile dried plasma for transfusion to assist the British war effort. Later, in 1941, when it became clear that the United States would also be drawn into the war, Dr. Drew was tapped to supervise a similar project to stockpile blood reserves for American soldiers. During WWII, Dr. Drew established himself as the expert in the field of blood banking and transfusion medicine and his efforts here in the United States saved the lives of thousands of injured U.S. servicemen in Europe and the South Pacific.

Dr. Drew went on to more honors, including the first African-American appointed an examiner to the American Board of Surgery in 1942, elected Fellow to the International College of Surgeons in 1946, awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 1948 and appointed Surgical Consultant for the U.S. Army in 1949.

Unfortunately, he died at age 45 in 1950 in a car accident in North Carolina while on the way to a medical conference with three other doctors. The driver of the car, he sustained massive life-threatening injuries that did not respond to emergency medical care. Contrary t
o popular belief, he did not die because he was denied a blood transfusion at Alamance County Hospital, the segregated hospital he was taken to by ambulance after the accident.

Dr. Drew leaves behind an extraordinary legacy worthy of a hero. According to the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science website, his work has saved 2,000,000,000 lives so far. I am proud to say that I am one of those lives; I am the recipient of multiple blood transfusions given to me over the course of 7 months during my cancer treatment in 1988.

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