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A Grateful Patient Returns with Thanks, and a Life-affirming Message

December 21, 2018
by Robert Forman

Four years ago, at age 24, Filippos Tsapekis came from his native Greece to the Aortic Institute, part of Yale New Haven Hospital's Heart and Vascular Center. He was physically weak with leakage from a heart valve, and somber about his future, because a life-threatening aneurysm sat at a dangerous location—the point where his aorta and heart muscle meet. “The emotional burden is overwhelming, knowing that you have an aneurysm that can rupture at any time,” says John Elefteriades, MD, William W.L. Glenn Professor of Surgery (Cardiac Surgery). “I was very stressed,” says Tsapekis.

Elefteriades repaired the valve and the aneurysm, and Tsapekis has gone on to become an award-winning filmmaker. He returned to Yale on November 16 at Elefteriades’ invitation to screen Nine to Five, a dystopian fantasy about a terrible fate that may await people who devote too much time to their professional ambitions, and not enough to the wider world and the people around them.

The visit and the screening were an opportunity for Tsapekis to show his gratitude for the work of Elefteriades and the institute, but Elefteriades also saw the film itself as having an important message for his institute team—that tempting as it may be to consume oneself with work, with an eye toward advancing one’s career, it is not a good idea. The film does not even depict a medical professional. The lead character is a lawyer. Still, “the depth of meaning in his video just blew me away,” says Elefteriades. “So, I wanted to recognize that and share it with at least a small Yale audience.”

“You may have heard the expression ‘pajama work.’ That’s what doctors do after they go home and have dinner and exercise,” Elefteriades explains. “They would like to have some time for themselves, but they have to go on their computer for an hour or two, to feed the computer, to satiate it, before they can wrap up their day and be ready for the next day. Burnout is a big issue, and really the focus of Filippos’ video is working too hard.”

As Tsapekis framed it during his visit, “People have no time to discover themselves.”

The surgery Tsapekis received in 2014 improved his ability to achieve his own self-discovery. “I think it was a good experience,” he said, “a bad situation but a good experience. I learned a lot of things and it made me stronger.”

Elefteriades credits his institute team for the fact that Tsapekis is one of many patients who have traveled long distances to receive care. “Number one, you have to do good work. Patients have to have good durable outcomes,” he says. “But I think having teams like ours, where we have 18 to 20 young people from all over the world working every day, doing research in every aspect of aortic disease, we are able to produce very meaningful advances in our understanding and treatment of aortic disease, which ultimately are recognized when they are presented at important forums.”

There is some dissonance between the hard work Elefteriades praises and his desire for his team to find ways to put work aside, and he admits he has no good suggestions for how to balance the two. Still, he thinks exposure to Tsapekis’ ideas is a start. “Maybe Filippos’ film should be involved somehow in the greater efforts that our hospital and other hospitals are taking.”

A senior member of the institute team, Joelle Buntin, MSN, RN-BC, surgical nurse coordinator and one of Tsapekis’ hosts for the day, was also grateful that the young trainees in the classroom at William L. Harkness Hall were able to think about this aspect of their futures. “Physicians are the worst at caring for themselves,” she observed. “If you’re caring for others, you need to care for yourself first.” 

Submitted by Robert Forman on December 21, 2018