You can’t be wishy-washy and live up to the altruistic goals you started out with,” says Dr. Eugene Dong, 45, a Stanford Medical School cardiac surgeon and professional maverick. That credo may help explain why he is (1) at odds with the university’s world-famous heart surgeon, Norman Shumway, over the goals of Stanford’s transplant program; (2) the co-author of a medical disaster novel that warns against using plutonium to power artificial hearts; (3) a critic of the Stanford hospital’s billing schedule; (4) embroiled in a legal battle over a colleague’s alleged misuse of federal research funds, and (5) going to law school.
Dong enrolled in Stanford in 1960 largely because of its renown as a center for cardiac surgery. But after assisting on 10 transplants and specializing in research on the immune systems which tend to reject the replacement hearts, he fell out with Shumway. It was not over medical theory but rather the university’s siphoning off of fees generated by the transplant program into other areas. “Shumway was unwilling to take a stand,” grouses Dong. Even now, Shumway will say only that Dong, a tenured associate professor, is still a part of his Department of Cardiovascular Surgery.
Meanwhile, Dong’s novel, Heartbeat, written with Stanford Medical School’s chief information officer, Spyros Andreopoulos, has raised another kind of furor. The plot centers on a transplant patient fitted with an artificial plutonium-powered heart who is kidnapped by a madman. The book’s point is that the 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of plutonium needed to fuel one artificial heart could, if sprayed in the air, cause lung cancer in from 70,000 to 1.7 million people. That, Dong insists, is not fiction. “The issue,” he says, “is whether we should develop technologies which are dangerous to society while trying to save individual lives? My answer is no. There is no harm in going slow.” Although Dong’s novel is futuristic, some researchers have already said they would use plutonium to fuel artificial hearts, despite safety warnings from a National Institutes of Health panel.
Dong was raised in the farming community of Salinas. His father was the first Chinese-American high school grad in Watsonville, Calif. and at the age of 77 is still a practicing M.D. Dong himself graduated with top honors in physiology from Berkeley, earned his M.D. at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco, and interned at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, where he met his wife, Mabel, mother of their three children, aged 13 to 16.
A watershed for Dong came in 1976 when he became a patient, undergoing the removal of a cancerous thyroid. That experience aggravated his distrust of Stanford’s billing system, under which patients pay open-market fees for services from university-paid doctors with fixed salaries. This leads, Dong argues, to undue “profit” for the school and exorbitant bills for patients. Dong also alleges that interns and residents do much of the work for which higher-priced staff doctors charge. “There has to be a return of responsibility to the patient,” he says.
So far the university has tried to downplay Dong’s complaints, though it is checking into his claim that one colleague had falsified his research data to obtain more federal funding. (His crusade has inspired an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for possible criminal violation.)
It may be ominous for Stanford that Dong is now reading law nights at Santa Clara. “I may end up,” he says drolly, “taking over Stanford someday.” But that’s just his short-term goal. In 10 years he figures on running for the U.S. Senate.