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On the Cutting Edge of History: Medical Milestones in Black History

This February, Harbin Clinic joins with the Nation in celebrating the legacy and milestones of Black Americans throughout history. Black stories and voices are essential to the ongoing story of what it means to be an American. More specifically, we highlight the voices of Black medical trailblazers and leaders who have influenced the work Harbin Clinic physicians do today.

One prominent medical pioneer in American history was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. Williams was a leader in the medical world as a successful surgeon and founder of Provident Hospital, Chicago’s first interracial hospital. Then on July 9, 1893, Williams performed the first successful open-heart surgery. His patient, James Cornish who was also an African American, made a full recovery, and the Chicago area became known as an “incubator of surgical innovation.”

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams

Chicago Tribune science and medical reporter Ronald Kotulak describing this historical moment wrote, “With a scalpel, he cut a small hole in Cornish’s chest carefully picking his way past nerves, muscle, blood vessels and ribs until he reached the rapidly beating heart. Exploring the wound, Williams found a severed artery. He closed it with sutures, but then discerned an inch-long gash in the pericardium, the tough sac that surrounds the heart. The heart itself had only been nicked and did not need sutures. But the damaged sac had to be closed. With Cornish’s heart beating 130 times a minute beneath his nimble fingers, Williams closed the wound with catgut.”

Kotulak also notes that medical textbooks at the time highly discouraged operating on the heart. The tools for surgery in the 1890s were far from sufficient when compared to today’s surgical procedures. Not to mention, the use of antibiotics and anesthesia were still new ideas, and x-rays and imaging were far from where medical practices are today. The heart surgery Williams performed may seem commonplace from a recent perspective, but in his time, it was considered daring and revolutionary.

Williams continued to pave the way with medical ingenuity and was eventually appointed chief surgeon at the Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington D.C., a hospital known for giving care to formerly enslaved Black men and women.

Ademola Adeseye, MD, MPH

Since then, countless Black physicians and healthcare professionals have paved the way for more medical innovations through their accomplishments. In more recent history, Harbin Clinic was privileged to witness and celebrate another advance in surgical history locally. On Thursday, August 18th, 2022, cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Ademola Adeseye, performed the first robot-assisted cardiothoracic surgery in Northwest Georgia.

Describing why the surgery is both innovative and better for patients, Adeseye explains: “The robotic assistance allows for greater precision and a wider range of motion during the procedure. By inserting a small camera, our surgical team is able to have a clear view of lung and esophagus conditions. We can treat mediastinal masses and perform procedures like lymph node dissection without causing major trauma to the patient.”

Due to the minimally invasive nature of the procedure, patients experience a faster recovery, shorter hospital stays and report both quicker return to normal activities and decreased scarring.

“This technology is such a benefit to our patients. We’re able to quickly diagnose, treat and improve a situation while keeping our patients as healthy as possible. I’m honored to perform these operations for those in our care,” adds Adeseye.

At Harbin Clinic, we are grateful for the leadership and ingenuity of Black physicians like these who, throughout the history of medicine, overcame many obstacles to make a difference in the lives of their patients, and ultimately, make a difference in the way Harbin physicians practice medicine today.

Published February 20, 2023

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