Loping into the lobby of the Frances Langford Heart Center, Dr. James C. Thornton is met with a coy twittering of, “Hi, doctor” from female co-workers, patients and their families.
He wears a pink shirt carefully tucked into khaki trousers and a tie that looks to be the reproduction of an abstract painting. His salt-and-pepper hair is brushed back from his forehead and his rimless glasses sit squarely on his aquiline nose.
He is an imposing figure at 6 feet 7 inches tall. He is handsome and lanky with a big smile that turns on like a lighthouse beacon, but disappears when he speaks of serious matters like saving the lives of terminally ill patients in Tanzania.
Thornton, a cardiothoracic surgeon for the Christian-based Ocala Heart Institute, has been operating out of Martin Memorial Hospital for less than a year. In April, he and a small surgical team moved into the small town of Moshe in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, where he operated on two hearts a day, four days a week for two weeks.
“These kids were at the end of the line,” he says. “Without the surgery they would have lost their lives. Now they are able to lead normal lives and live their dreams.”
The missionary program in Tanzania was started five years ago by Thornton’s colleague Dr. Duane Cook. Also a cardiothoracic surgeon with the Ocala Heart Institute, Cook earlier spent time at the Frances Langford Heart Center in the physician rotation established between the two organizations.
Cook’s wife grew up in Tanzania and through her connections was able to put together an open-heart surgery facility.
“We were the first to perform open heart surgery there,” Thornton explains. “The government is now pursuing an open heart surgery facility in [Brunei] Darussalam.”
The focus of the program is patients in their 20s who suffer from rheumatic heart disease due to childhood rheumatic fever.
“In a lot of ways it is a third world disease,” Thornton says.
“There are only sporadic cases in the U.S. In Africa, there is no penicillin. Kids are living their lives in the bush. They get infections. Those with strong immune systems survive.”
The African bush is a long way from Willard, Ohio, where Thornton grew up. “It was a company town,” he says. “Built by the B&O Railroad.”
Thornton attended Wittenberg University, then Ohio State University for medical school. He has been married for 14 years to Kathleen, another Ohio native, and has “two great step daughters and a son.”
Talking to Thornton, you’d imagine the crackle of electricity, his energy is so acute. He is both charismatic and cerebral, loves classical and country western music, and is an artist working in oils and watercolors in an impressionistic to realistic style.
“Curiosity is the engine that drives me,” he says. “There isn’t a subject I don’t find interesting. I like anything that puts me at a frontier.”
Cardiothoracic surgery is certainly a frontier.
“It was the last to develop after sub surgeries like general, ortho and neuro,” he explains. “Thoracic and heart were the last to develop because no one could operate inside the chest because the lungs would collapse and the patient died. This changed with the invention of the heart/lung machine in the mid-50s.”
Thornton says this type of surgery requires a certain degree of finesse: “It takes a unique personality type to jump into the thick of things. You have to think on your feet.”
Thinking on his feet was a big part of the job in Tanzania. The hospital was barely equipped to handle the surgeries.
“It was unpredictable,” Thornton says. “It was a large monolith of a hospital built in the 1970s. Electricity and fresh water were a gamble; for most of two weeks we didn’t have running water. We lived in single-unit housing built by the hospital for patients’ families.”
Furthermore, the doctors were limited to what they could do, not only because of time restraints and limited facilities, but because they needed to temper their desire to help with an understanding of their own limitations.
“On the veranda there was a long wooden bench where 20 people would be sitting everyday waiting for us to evaluate them,” Thornton explains. “Some were turned away because they were not good surgical candidates. They had to have overall good health to withstand the operation. They couldn’t be HIV-positive.”
During Thornton’s stay in Moshe, Cook held a reunion of sorts for past surgical patients.
“It was a remarkable reunion,” Thornton remembers. “They had gone back into society and were gainfully employed. After the surgery they went back to do what they wanted to do in their lives.”
What Thornton found most frustrating was the lack of quality nursing care (especially post-op), what he sees as a “small impact on a big problem.”
“But it was rewarding to see these young kids come in who could barely walk into the facility, who had the operations and who would bounce back almost immediately,” he says. “There is tremendous need.”
And in the case of Thornton, tremendous heart.
gulfstreammediagroup.com January 2009
By INDIA ANDERSON
Photography By Diane Dultmeier