Memorable Moments in Medicine

By Kaila Lancaster

Pictured: Photos by Grace-Marie Brunken,

We all hold physicians in high esteem. They possess great knowledge and bear great responsibility, caring for us and our loved ones in times of need. As in any other profession, physicians have their fair share of run-of-the-mill days: bumps and bruises, checkups and follow-ups. Then there are days that require all their focus and training to succeed and possibly save a life. Other days may not be as critical, and yet a poignant gesture reminds them why they dedicate their lives to the medical field. A physician will have myriad experiences over his or her career — moments of success, survival, emotion and miracles. We asked Waco physicians to each share their most memorable moment as a medical professional. Read these powerful, emotional and heartfelt stories that prove the human connection is not lost in modern medicine.

Dr. Richard Whitworth
Emergency medicine physician, Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Hillcrest
James Tilton
Physician assistant, Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Hillcrest Emergency Center
Dr. Jared Zelinski
Emergency medicine physician, Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Hillcrest

“Dr. Zelinski was the primary physician, and I was kind of the helper. The little girl [James Tilton’s daughter] had been sick for several days with routine symptoms, but there was something more sinister about this sickness. Dr. Zelinski took an X-ray of her chest and noticed her heart was unusually large, which is a marker for heart failure. It was decided to transfer her so she could receive the care she needed. We had to place her on the ventilator. Shortly after that, her heart stopped, and we had to start CPR. She would do OK and last a little bit, but then she would require more CPR. We worked for hours — doing CPR, adding more medicines, etc. Eventually she was stable enough that we could transfer her.” — Whitworth

“I booked it to the hospital, and by the time I got there they were still working on her. She had tubes everywhere. [Zelinski and Whitworth] and the nursing staff were relentless. They did not leave her room for seven-plus hours. They decided to transfer her to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. Once she was in Houston, they did open-heart surgery. Miraculously, her heart went back to its normal size. What [the staff at Hillcrest] did in that timeframe was just incredible. The staff at Texas Children’s Hospital credit those doctors for saving her life.” — Tilton

“It was a pretty intense case. It had every criterion that makes a physician anxious. It was not only a two-month-old patient, but it was a two-month-old patient who had previously been perfectly healthy. I also knew the parents personally. I think the staff at the hospital was so amazing — everyone. It was the biggest medical venture I’ve been a part of, one of those cases a physician will never forget.” — Zelinski

Dr. Gary Barbin
Internist, Providence Internal Medicine Clinic

“I’ve seen a lot of technological advances over the years, ones that profoundly enhance quality of life and save lives. A stunning example: CT low-dose lung cancer screening. During a recent checkup, my patient mentioned she was celebrating 14 years of quitting smoking. Listening to her story, I knew she could benefit from CT low-dose lung screening. The scan revealed stage 1 cancer. Most lung cancers aren’t quickly detected, making it America’s most deadly form of cancer. But about 80 percent of lung cancers can be cured if caught early. Thanks to our early detection, the patient was connected with an expert team of pulmonologists, surgeons and oncologists. Just months later, she’s cancer-free.”

Dr. Jon Daniell
Emergency medicine physician, Premier ER

“I recall taking care of a patient who had come in the [emergency room] in bad shape. Paramedics were doing CPR; he was being resuscitated. Because of the efforts of the whole emergency department, we could bring the patient back. Through some excellent efforts from the staff, he survived cardiac arrest and a heart attack. About a month later, a woman came up to me. I had had some interaction with her in the community, and it turned out the patient was her husband. I realized who he was and how much influence he had on the community. That one interaction in the ER affected so many other things, not just from their personal standpoint. Saving his life — essentially bringing him back to life — benefited the entire community because of who he is and what he does for Waco. The doctor-patient relationship meant so much to an entire community.”

Dr. David Hoffman
General and vascular surgeon, Waco Surgical Group

“This particular case was special because it strengthened my Christian faith. There was a young man who was involved in a car accident. It was a very severe accident; the person in the car with him was killed. The young man was critically injured. He ruptured his spleen, fractured his back, had multiple rib fractures, had a liver fracture and was bleeding to death. I operated on him, but because of his excessive injuries, his chance of survival was very small. I went out to talk to his young wife. I was very honest. I said ‘I’ve done what I can, but I want to prepare you.’ Her response was mind-blowing to me. She said, ‘I have no doubt he is going to survive. I prayed to God, and God let me know he was going to survive.’ The young man did survive, and I felt challenged in my faith. I had never prayed that way before with so much assurance that God was going to answer my prayers.”

Dr. Bradford Holland
Otolaryngologist, Waco Ear, Nose & Throat

“One of the patients I remember the most was an elderly gentleman who had lost the ability to swallow. He had a feeding tube in place. I don’t think we realize, as humans, what the ability to eat and enjoy food can mean to someone. It can leave a huge hole in life. The prospect of never eating again was weighing on this patient heavily. He came to see us and asked if there was any hope — he had been told by others that there was none. We said yes, and through an extensive rehabilitative effort, we got him swallowing again. His wife came several months later and said, ‘I had found him in the garage with a gun; he was going to end it. The prospect of not being able to eat again was something he didn’t want to face. You really saved his life.’ He’s still alive today, and I still get a Christmas present from him every year.”

Dr. Michelle Manning
Obstetrician-gynecologist, Waco Center for Women’s Health

“I had a patient who was willing to be a surrogate for a couple who had lost four pregnancies. I had delivered the patient’s second and third babies, and I had even known her from high school. The couple she was helping went through the heartbreak of four miscarriages. I was able to take care of the surrogate through her whole pregnancy just like I had done before. When it was time to deliver, the couple was in the room. When we had delivered the baby, the patient just smiled and nodded her head toward the couple. I turned to them with their new baby, and they just both began to cry. They had realized this was their baby who they were going to get to take home. That was just an emotional, special day.”

Dr. Cessley Marsellus
Pediatrician, Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Hillcrest

“The moments where I treat second-generation patients are very special to me. I’ve been in Waco a little over 12 years, and patients who are in the upper teens — who have just graduated or are about to graduate pediatric care — are now having their own children and choosing me as their pediatrician. I’ll recognize the parent as a former patient, and I enjoy seeing both the patient and the parent grow.”

Dr. William Peper
Cardiothoracic surgeon, William A. Peper, M.D., FACS – Thoracic, Vascular & Vein Surgery

“I can remember the Branch Davidian episode that happened here in Waco on April 19, 1993. I was a new surgeon in town. I had just moved back to Texas. I had only been here two months, and I was on call the day the episode happened. I was the vascular and thoracic surgeon on call for all those [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] agents that came in all shot up. I ended up operating on two ATF agents. Both agents were badly injured, but both managed to survive. It was just a wild day. These hospitals back then were not capable of that amount of combat-like trauma. I was frightened because I had experienced hospitals that were capable of that amount of combat-like trauma, and I knew it would be no easy task. We spread the victims out between the two hospitals in town. Both agents I operated on had very severe wounds, but they were lucky they came to the hospital alive.”

Dr. Ben Perry
Geriatric and family medicine physician, Baylor Scott & White Health Center – Hillcrest

“Patient. Physician. Diagnosis. Prognosis. Treatment. All commonly used terms in medicine. However, one of the most impactful experiences of my career gave me a new perspective on these words that are such a routine part of my professional vocabulary. My wife and I had become accustomed to the organized chaos of our lives after 10 years of marriage, five young children and numerous moves. But we could never have anticipated her diagnosis of advanced breast cancer at the age of 33. The medical knowledge and expertise of her radiology, pathology, oncology, surgery and radiation doctors was vital to her treatment. Nonetheless, remarkable acts of kindness, sincere encouragement and genuine friendship were equally important for my wife as she endured multiple surgeries and months of chemotherapy followed by even more months of radiation. I learned that even while the medical field constantly seeks additional knowledge, it also celebrates the connections between people. Those connections enrich and ennoble our life in a way that is difficult to scientifically or physiologically quantify.”

Dr. Darrell Wheeler
Neonatologist, Waco Neonatal Group, P.A.

“Being able to save a 13-ounce baby was definitely my most memorable moment. She was 3 ounces shy of a pound — so small. She was a twin; we also took care of her brother. She spent over nine months in the hospital, but I only took care of her for about three and a half months. She then had to go to [Cook Children’s Medical Center] for some additional specialty support. We could take care of her twin brother here in Waco — he wasn’t quite as small. They are now about nine and a half months old. She was the smallest baby that I’ve ever been able to save.”