It was a brisk fall day in October 1990, and 9-year-old Jacob Isserman was hiking with his family 30 minutes from their home in mountainous Morgantown, West Virginia. Trudging through a thick layer of leaves that covered the trail of Coopers Rock State Forest, he scouted ahead of his parents and 4-year-old brother, Noah.
In a matter of minutes, Isserman went from a curious, care-free little boy to a trauma patient in the emergency department of West Virginia University J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown. Isserman had slipped on a pile of leaves, slid down a small hill, and went careening off a 35-foot cliff, landing face-first in a creek bed.
“It was bad,” Isserman remembers. “I broke both of my wrists, broke my jaw in a couple places, bit through my lower lip, and knocked out my top three teeth.”
Isserman’s father carried his bloodied son a mile to the car. They used the phone to call for help at a nearby research station and determined it would be faster to drive their own car rather than wait for an ambulance. Isserman used a balled-up blanket for a pillow and lay down in the back of the family’s Buick station wagon. He tried to scratch his face and couldn’t understand why his hands wouldn’t work.
At the hospital, John Prescott, MD, then a new faculty member at Ruby Memorial Hospital, remembers hearing the radio report from Medical Command warning the medical team to gear up for a badly hurt child.
Prescott and the team made a quick assessment of the boy and immediately began resuscitative and stabilization procedures. A more in-depth examination followed and included X-rays, CAT scans, and an assessment of Isserman’s mental state.
“We were dealing with a seriously injured child who had suffered significant blunt injuries. At the same time, we were working to comfort a young child and his family,” Prescott says.
Prescott recalls exactly where in the emergency department the resuscitation took place — the left side of the trauma bay — and remembers thinking how very lucky that Isserman was not more severely injured from the fall. “He had extensive facial trauma and multiple fractures,” Prescott says. “A seriously injured child focuses the attention of everyone in the department.”
A chance encounter
Fast forward 19 years, to Sept. 9, 2009, at 9 a.m. Prescott, by then the chief academic officer at the AAMC, was giving a lecture to the emergency department at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Afterward, a young man emerged from the crowd.
A 28-year-old Isserman had been in the audience and made the connection that Prescott was the man who had saved his life years before.
It was the second time Isserman had attended a lecture of Prescott’s; after the first one, he had done some digging, confirming with his mother that Prescott was indeed the doctor who had initially treated him at Ruby Memorial Hospital.
“You obviously did a pretty good job,” Isserman told a stunned Prescott after that second lecture, “because here I am today.”
“It was bad. I broke both of my wrists, broke my jaw in a couple places, bit through my lower lip, and knocked out my top three teeth.”
Jacob Isserman, MD
Emergency Medicine Physician
MedStar Washington Hospital Center
The coincidences don’t end there.
Prescott went to Georgetown University School of Medicine for medical school — as did Isserman and Prescott’s daughter, who is now an emergency medicine resident at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C.
Her attending on her very first shift at MedStar?
Isserman, of course.
“It’s just a crazy story,” says Amy Prescott, MD. “Being in the ER, you expect to see a patient one time and then never again. To have that connection with someone over time, it’s amazing.”
The path to medicine
Although Isserman doesn’t remember too many details about the accident, he does recall his lengthy rehabilitation. He had surgery immediately after to fix the lacerations on his face and oral surgery on his jaw to fix the fractures. The oral surgeons wired his jaw shut for six weeks and put his teeth back in, but after the teeth fused into his jawbone, he eventually received dental implants.
But he did heal, and he healed well. He went on to play the piano, guitar, and basketball.
Isserman says the accident actually steered him away from medicine for about 15 years. The environment was too familiar, and too painful. “I had a fear of needles and a lot of apprehension about going to the doctor.”
After graduating from Grinnell College in Iowa, he worked briefly as a high school soccer coach. “I didn’t know what to do with my life,” he remembers.
But then he decided to shadow an orthopedic surgeon. That was all it took, and he went back to school to complete his premed requirements.
During his second year of medical school at Georgetown, he took an elbow to the chin during soccer and needed five stitches. Being back in the emergency room, he realized that he wanted to be that doctor who could save a banged-up little boy at a moment’s notice. He went on to complete his residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
“I think what made me really want to be an emergency physician was the ability to handle anything, to be self-sufficient, to be prepared for whatever life was going to bring,” says Isserman, now a father of two.
“A former patient becomes an academic emergency physician and ends up guiding your daughter. It makes you feel pretty good.”
John Prescott, MD
Chief Academic Officer
That, and memories of a doctor at Ruby Memorial Hospital who was there when he needed him most.
“I’m sure there are a lot of other people who influenced him” — Isserman’s mother is a dermatologist, for example — “but it’s a remarkable story,” John Prescott says. “A former patient becomes an academic emergency physician and ends up guiding your daughter. It makes you feel pretty good.”