February 25, 2002
"I was born in Touro and raised in Charity," says Albert Hyman. "As a kid, I used to make rounds with my daddy on Saturdays."
So it's fitting that this spring Hyman, a cardiologist and professor at Tulane Medical School, will receive the Spirit of Charity award in recognition of his long relationship with the hospital and his innovative career. In 1947, as a mere resident at Charity, he was the first person in the region to perform a heart catheterization.
Today, he's engaged in gene-therapy research. In between he helped get Charity air-conditioned, contributed to Nobel Prize-winning research, and catheterized a live mouse. Hyman's father was a 1914 graduate of Tulane Medical School. He didn't push his sons into medicine, but he often showed them a field where there would always be something more to learn.
"Look, I'm a cardiologist," Hyman says. "But here I am in pharmacology doing gene-transfer research. That has nothing to do with a stethoscope, but it has to do with being on the front guard and understanding how that can help people."
He started his undergraduate career at Tulane on Sept. 1, 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland. He finished his bachelor's degree at Louisiana State University and immediately enrolled in the newly accelerated program at the LSU School of Medicine. He graduated in 1945, just as the war ended. As a resident at Cincinnati General, Hyman had a chance to go to New York to observe a team of doctors who were perfecting the newly developed catheterization procedure, which is used as a diagnostic tool to measure pressure and oxygen inside the heart. The next year, he returned to Charity and before long had a chance to try out this new technique.
"They thought this woman had an infection on the valve that controls the flow of blood in the artery that goes to the lung. They were going to put a long needle right through it. But if you miss it, do you have any idea what you could rip apart? So I asked them to let me put a little tube in there. The worst I could do was tear up her vein."
Using a fluoroscopean X-ray device that let him watch the progress of the catheterHyman performed a successful catheterization. Before long, he was doing them frequently, even performing one on a toddler. These early heart caths were done when Hyman was still with LSU. George Burch, Tulane's chair of medicine at the time, was suspicious of the new procedure.
But when Hyman did a catheterization that caught a renowned cardiologist's misdiagnosis, Burch became more accepting of the procedure, and fonder of Hyman. Burch helped Hyman get a fellowship to study at the British Postgraduate Medical School in London. When Hyman returned, he helped Burch demonstrate that the high temperatures in the hospital put increased strain on the heart and were dangerous for those with heart disease, convincing hospital administrators to install air-conditioning.
Finally, in 1956, Hyman joined Tulane's faculty. Burch sent Hyman to work with the surgery department. They were starting to do open-heart surgery, and Burch hoped a cardiologist's presence would help keep their mortality rate down.
"Burch thought that open-heart surgery was the invention of the devil," remembers Hyman. Around the same time, Hyman began research on blood pressure in the lung. One day, Hyman was introduced to a doctor from the pharmacology department. "He had some nitroglycerin preparations, and he wanted a couple of us to help him with it," says Hyman. "That was Lou Ignarro, and that stuff was nitric oxide."
Ignarro would go on to win the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1998 for his work showing that nitric oxide regulates blood vessels, which led to the development of a wide variety of new drugs. In another influential research project, Hyman and a colleague demonstrated that the lung was not a unique organ outside of the control of the central nervous system, as had long been believed.
More recently, a talented graduate student piqued their interest in genetics. They began to look at ways to use a virus to deliver a gene that will lower blood pressure in those with primary pulmonary hypertension, a disease that Hyman has studied for his entire career. They used mice in their studies, so Hyman designed a tiny catheter for a live mouse, something a reviewer described as a "tour de force."
The gene-transfer research is still ongoing. Hyman is now 78 years old but has no plans to retire. He sees patients in the morning and spends his afternoons on research, as he has done for years. "I've thought about retiring, but if you're having fun, why stop?" he says.
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