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Wednesday, May 2, 2007

A doctor’s visit that changed history: An empowered patient

Boris Yeltsin was running for re-election as the first President of Russia. But he had had a heart attack, and was having chest pain. A Russian surgeon said the 65-year old leader wouldn’t survive the coronary bypass surgery he needed.

Yeltsin, the second most powerful man in the world, was clearly an empowered patientt. He asked for a second opinion—from Dr. Michael DeBakey. DeBakey was confident that an excellent Russian surgeon, Dr. Renat Akchurin, could safely perform the operation. Yeltsin’s medical team followed DeBakey’s advice to correct thyroid and other problems to prepare him for the bypass, then performed the surgery competently.

"All the doctors agreed Yeltsin would have died if he did not have the bypass. He was deteriorating and going into early heart failure," DeBakey said in an interview. "We gave him 10 ½ years of comfortable life."

"I’ll do what you say if you can put me back in my office," Yeltsin had told Dr. DeBakey. As a patient, Yeltsin "was not as bossy as he was with some of his Russian doctors," DeBakey said, adding, "He didn’t get along with some of the doctors there. But he took a liking to me, listened, and that made things much better."

Advice: Be like Boris: Listen to your doctor, and do what he or she says, even if you usually give orders rather than take them. Use your connections, or those of your advocate, to get a sound second opinion.

Then use your extra years of life to change the world – in a better direction than he did, picking a dictatorial former spy chief, Vladimir Putin, as his successor.

Read another of our world-changing medical stories, or Dr. Lawrence Altman’s source story in the May 1 issue of The New York Times.

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