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Helping fix the Third World

Cliff Thompson
Bret Hartman / Vail DailyDr. Tatsumi
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EDWARDS ” Dr. Tetsuo Tatsumi, 74, is a gentle, soft-spoken medical crusader.

Over the last six years he has taken a month-long vacation from his retirement in Edwards and ” instead of soaking up sun on a beach or golf course ” has traveled to Honduras and Guatemala each spring to teach doctors there about precise, microscopic, image-guided neurosurgical techniques ” for free.

Like his surgical technique, his volunteerism is made with well thought-out and deliberate moves.

Chances are, you probably haven’t heard of Tatsumi, who moved here in 1998 from Canton, Ohio, but you probably have seen the results of one of his volunteer efforts if you’ve taken to the ski slopes.

“He’s the guy who fueled interest in helmets for skiing at Vail,” said friend and long-term local Walter Dandy of Avon. “Because of his interest he made a difference here.”

In a profession often studded with titanic egos, Tetsuo is a very

humble human.

“He’s incredibly low-keyed and very generous,” Dandy said. “He’s one of the good ones.”

Despite his local anonymity, Tatsumi may be better known in national medical circles. In April his peers at the prestigious American Association of Neurological Surgeons will present Tatsumi with the Humanitarian Award.

“I was shocked,” he said softly, as a smile creased his tanned, unlined face. “I was just doing what I love most. There are so many

volunteers in Eagle County that need to be recognized before me.”

He learned of the award last week after he returned from a trip to Tokyo where he attended the wedding of his niece. On his return home, his wife Cindy broke the news to him. She works is a case management worker at the Vail Valley Medical Center.

“I love to brag about him because he won’t do it himself,” she said.

Exacting surgery

Tatsumi’s father, a judo expert who had to deal with many dislocated arms and legs while pursuing his sport, urged him to study medicine. His son listened.

In 1958 he moved from Maebashi, Guma, on the island of Honshu, to Jersey City, N. J. ” which is just across the river from Manhattan ” for a medical residency. It was a giant move for him, but it wasn’t the medical residency that proved to be the most challenging. It was the language.

“I had studied English but it was all by book,” he said. “I never had to speak to people. It’s completely different when you come to this country. It took some time to understand what they were talking about.”

But he learned the language and that he wanted to be a neurosurgeon instead of a neurologist (neurosurgeons operate to fix what neurologists diagnose). And he also learned that he didn’t want to live in a big city, he said.

He decided to move to Canton when an opportunity opened there.

For the next 40 years, he performed exacting surgery on often-tiny nerves surrounding vertebral discs and separated brain and spinal tissues from tumors.

“It’s extremely critical,” he said, fixing the interviewer with a steady eye. “It has to be precise. There is no room for mistakes.”

Modern neurosurgeons use microscopes and computer-aided image guiding surgical techniques. “It’s very different from what I studied,” he said.

But the enormous increase in the cost of malpractice insurance pushed him to retire, he said.

“It cost me $100,000 a year for the insurance,” he said. “That’s just too much pressure.”

Catastrophic injuries

His wife, after 23 years of marriage, worried if he retired he’d spend his time idly sitting at home. She quickly dismissed that thought when he began to volunteer his medical skills.

“He’s always got these projects,” she said. “He just won’t stop.”

One of the first things he did was to become a volunteer guest services coordinator for Vail Resorts, showing people the ins and outs of the mountain.

Then, inspired by years of trying to fix the results of traumatic head and spinal injuries, he formed a local chapter of the Think First National Injury Prevention Foundation. The organization aims to prevent head and spinal injuries to children and teenagers, who suffer the highest incidence of those serious injuries.

“Use your mind to protect your body,” the program’s brochure touts.

Children and teenagers sufferer brain and spinal injuries at a rate disproportionate to the rest of the population. Nearly 500,000 brain injuries and 12,000 spinal cord injuries occur each year, Dr. Tatsumi said.

“I thought this was important. For a lot of people this type of injury is a catastrophe,” he said. “Prevention is the key. Once you’re injured, there is no cure.”

But the volunteer effort he finds most rewarding is teaching in Central America where he said he enjoys bringing modern medicine to that Third World country. He wishes it was something he had done earlier in his career, he said.

“That’s my regret,” he said, smiling. “I would have done it sooner had I know how it would feel. These young people are so eager to learn it is a pleasure to work with them. When you train them you develop a very close relationship with them.”

Honduras has public and private medical service, Dr. Tatsumi said. The wealthy can afford private treatment, while all the rest have to settle for the often-times overwhelmed public health service.

“People have to wait and wait for medical service,” he said. “Service is very poor with a constant lack of supplies.”

More help

He helped two of the interns he worked with in Honduras get fellowships through the University of Colorado, Boulder. He said watching interns who don’t know modern neurosurgical techniques learn them and become private practitioners is most rewarding.

But bringing his experience and techniques wasn’t enough.

Learning about equipment that you don’t have is useless, so he also reached out to equipment manufacturers for donations of microscopes and other specialized equipment needed for the surgeries.

“I took a lot of supplies with me,” he said. “Not only did I have to teach them how to use it, I had to supply it, too.”

He discovered a nurse he had worked with in Canton had founded a private clinic in Santa Rosa, a city near the capital, Tegucigalpa. He wants her to open a neurosurgical ward.

“She’s a real crusader,” he said.

But Tatsumi can’t seem to resist spreading his message. During his 10-day trip to Japan he encouraged one of his neurosurgeon friends to start a Think Now chapter there.

Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 450, or cthompson@vaildaily.com.

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