TUCSON, Ariz. — One is an irrepressible South Korea native who has treated some of the most horrific wartime injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other is a reserved neurosurgeon who happens to be the brother-in-law of television show host Dr. Oz.
Together, they have stood in their white lab coats before a gaggle of TV cameras every morning to update the nation about their highest-profile patient to date: Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was critically wounded after being shot point-blank in the head last weekend.
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It’s a role both are still getting used to.
Veteran trauma surgeon Dr. Peter Rhee is boisterous, using phrases like “101 percent” survival to describe Giffords’ prognosis. His willingness to share day-to-day details about her progress and his joking demeanor is a draw to those tuning in for the latest signs of improvement.
The yin to Rhee’s yang, neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Lemole is more measured. He speaks of Giffords’ recovery with caveats and has declined to speculate on the one question everyone wants to know: what her life might look like down the road.
Lemole said their differences in approach have a lot to do with their backgrounds. Military doctors tend to measure success in number of lives saved whereas a brain doctor cares about the quality of life after survival.
“Rather than say, ‘Woo-hoo, we won,’ I say, ‘OK, we’ve crossed this hurdle. Now let’s shoot for the next one,”’ he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Despite their different personalities, both are closely involved in Giffords’ care, checking up on her and her family several times a day.
Both doctors were away from University Medical Center — the city’s only trauma center capable of treating the most seriously injured — when they got word Giffords had been shot.
Lemole had just finished a golf lesson with one of his sons. While driving in to the hospital, he heard a false report on the radio that Giffords had died.
“The first gut-wrenching feeling was, ‘Oh my gosh. I’m going in and there’s nothing I can do,”’ Lemole recalled. He quickly brushed the thought aside and speed-dialed one of his residents, who told him Giffords was still breathing.
Rhee was jogging three miles from his home and turned back to rush to the hospital. He credited his staff and his experience in the battlefield, where he had few supplies, for his quick treatment of the congresswoman and the other victims.
He was confident Giffords would survive after learning that she had been able to squeeze a doctor’s hand when she arrived at the hospital, something most gunshot victims can’t do.
“She was alive at that time,” Rhee said. “If she comes to me alive, I can keep her alive.”
Giffords remains in critical condition after Saturday’s brain surgery, but has been making remarkable progress. She opened her eyes for the first time Wednesday shortly after President Barack Obama visited her bedside en route to a memorial for the shooting victims.
Before the memorial, a roaring crowd gave the doctors and their families a standing ovation. Their faces were projected on a big screen and Rhee was spied posing for photos with fans.
The doctors have received a flood of thank-you e-mails and letters of support from strangers around the country. Rhee said he has even received scores of Facebook friend requests, which he hasn’t answered.
“It’s humbling because we do this every day, week in, week out,” Lemole told a news conference Thursday. “It’s nice to know that there is this kind of outpouring, but it doesn’t change what we do.”
Lemole continues to juggle his time caring for Giffords and his other patients. Lemole skipped Wednesday’s press conference to operate on a patient and to consult with a new one. He has no aspirations to be like his sister’s husband, the heart surgeon and talk show host Dr. Mehmet Oz, made famous by guest appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s show.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Rhee, 49, lived for several years in Uganda as his father, also a doctor, worked in the Peace Corps. The elder Rhee moved the family to the United States when Rhee was 10 to get a better education. He grew up in western Pennsylvania and later graduated from the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md. In 1998, he accompanied President Bill Clinton on a trip to China as his personal surgeon.
Rhee has become a cheerleader for Tucson, taking every opportunity before a press conference to praise the spirit of his adopted hometown. Even as he keeps the nation updated on his VIP patient, he likes to remind people about all the faceless trauma victims.
“People are injured every single day,” he said. “There’s nobody that’s more important than another.”