Dinghy Capsizes, Famous Doctor Dies - 05/28/2008
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Edwin C. Hirsch rigid dinghies
Edwin C. Hirsch, MD, Head of Trauma unit at Boston Medical Center. Rigid dinghies used as a tenders are dangerous.  Inflatables are far safer.

See TV News video of accident and pictures of survivor clinging to a mooring...

One of the most important advancements in boating technology occurred 40 years ago when inflatable dinghies were introduced into the U.S. from the U.K. Led by Avon and later Zodiac, soft-bottom inflatables were quickly adopted by yachtsmen as a safer, lighter, easier-to-handle alternative to the rigid fiberglass dinghies and prams that American yachtsmen struggled with.

Rigid dinghies are extremely weight sensitive and careful balance is absolutely necessary to prevent them from capsizing. Inflatables, on the other hand are inherently stable and shipping water is not usually problematical.

It is ironic that veteran yachtsman Dr. Hirsch -- an expert in saving lives -- neglected the most basic precautions to save his own: a life vest.

Article reprinted from the Boston Globe, May 24, 2008:

The 72-year-old surgeon plunged into the 48-degree water about 3 p.m. in Rockport Harbor, along with Kevin Wilkins, a 46-year-old resident of Salem, Mass., when they were rowing their dinghy to a moored boat, the US Coast Guard said. Neither man was wearing a life jacket.

For about 40 minutes after the dinghy capsized Hirsch could not be found. Initially, witnesses spotted only Wilkins in the water, flailing his arms and clinging to a moored powerboat, according to the website of the Knox County Times.

A passerby pulled Wilkins out of the water and handed him over to paramedics on shore, the Coast Guard said. It was then that Wilkins, suffering from hypothermia, told rescuers that there was a second man in the water.

A 25-foot Coast Guard boat scoured the area. At about 3:40 p.m., crews pulled Hirsch from the water, immediately beginning CPR. Those efforts continued on shore to no avail. Hirsch was later pronounced dead at Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport, Maine.

Dr. Hirsch was an Institution

His death quickly rippled throughout Boston, stunning colleagues and former patients.

‘‘He’s the heart and soul of Boston Medical Center,’’ said Dr. Andrew Glantz, who worked in the trauma center with Hirsch for three years.

‘‘I’m shocked, I’m just shocked,’’ said John Arnstein, 59, of Braintree, a retired Boston police officer, a patient of Hirsch’s after Arnstein was shot in the right leg and left hip in 1981.

‘‘I’ll always be thankful to him. I find it hard to believe that he just passed like this.’’

A young woman who answered the door at a Marblehead home listed for Hirsch said last night, ‘‘We’re not ready to talk.’’

Wilkins’ family, contacted at their Salem home, also declined to comment last night.

A Veteran Yachtsman

A longtime resident of Marblehead, Hirsch loved to sail as his refuge from the rigors of trauma work. But he also loved his job in the city’s busiest trauma unit, working as hard if not harder as director than the many medical residents he trained. He was known for being deeply devoted to Boston Medical Center, formerly Boston City Hospital, and its history of helping the city’s neediest patients.

Hirsch achieved iconic status there and beyond for his absolute devotion to providing the best medical care for whoever came through the doors, whether kingpin, pauper, scoundrel, or saint. Hirsch saw his role as supervising the complex, rapid-fire succession of tasks needed to save lives.

He guided the trauma department through the city’s spike in violence and murder in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then through quieter times in the late ’90s, only to see more victims flow through the doors this decade.

He had seen countless numbers of stabbing and shootings, and was one of the doctors who treated one of the city’s most infamous killers, Charles Stuart, who shot his wife to death in Mission Hill in 1989 and then shot himself to make it appear they were victims of a car robbery gone bad. The department treats about 2,000 patients a year.

‘‘It’s not just the person who dies,’’ Hirsch said in an interview with the Globe two years ago. ‘‘It’s also someone who loses a leg or has a long-term disability.

‘‘People think you either live and everything’s OK, or you die,’’ he said.

‘‘There’s this group in the middle. It will never be the same as the day before they got shot. That’s a huge problem — the impact on family, on society, on the victim.’’

A Giant in his Field

As many of his Boston Medical peers retired, Hirsch continued like clockwork at BMC, an unswerving presence.

‘‘If I did not enjoy doing what I’m doing, I would not be doing it,’’ Hirsch said in the Globe interview.

He took overnight rotations as often as surgeons half his age, and encouraged his staff to engage in cutting-edge research on trauma interventions.

Hirsch, a very private man, could be disarmingly gruff. But he also could be charming, placing strong value on family, and taught his medical students not to ignore a child’s birthday or family events.

‘‘You don’t let them believe the hospital is their home,’’ he once said.

Hirsch, who spent his childhood in Germany and Argentina, earned his medical degree in Argentina and then moved to Washington, D.C., to further his training. During the Vietnam War, he was one of the top surgeons at a Navy hospital in Da Nang.

After moving to Boston in his early 40s, he married and had two children.

‘‘He’s the one of the reasons I came to Boston Medical Center. He was a father-figure, a friend, a role model, and someone I aspire to become more like,’’ said Suresh Agarwal, also a trauma surgeon.

Hirsch was an influential figure for Agarwal long before they became colleagues five years ago. Agarwal learned of Hirsch’s work and came to admire him while in medical school at the University of Pittsburg. ‘‘He is a true giant in American trauma surgery.’’

‘‘I can name you a thousand patients he’s saved, a 100,000 clinical decisions he made that were correct,’’ Agarwal said, ‘‘but the one thing he that sticks out in my mind is the rapport he had with our trainees and colleagues, and the reverence they had for him.’’

Globe Correspondents Jillian Jorgensen and Caitlin Castello, and Globe staffer Patricia Wen contributed to this report.