Mom and the Age of Medical Miracles

It's hard to be a Luddite when you watch a loved one being saved by technology.

Ten days ago, I was up in my office working on a magazine story when my wife came in holding my ringing cell phone. "You left it downstairs and it's been ringing. Do you want to answer it?"

Figuring it was some PR flack, I almost tossed it on the couch and ignored it. But for some reason, at the last second I answered.

It was my mother. She'll be 85 this year. Looks 70. Born in Oklahoma, traveled the world with my father, made sure he had bullets when he went on missions under the Iron Curtain, drove him to safe houses in Morocco, made my school lunches, led my sister's Brownie troop, is restoring the family's Land Rush farm outside of Enid, a pillar of various local historical and charity groups, and walks about five miles per day. She lives in a house as modern as mine is historic.

I was expecting the usual inquiries about her grandsons, about going out to dinner over the weekend, news about my sister, etc. Instead: "Mike, I don't have any strength in my arms and my chest is feeling very tight. I think you better get me to the hospital."

Five minutes later I'm crawling down a long suburban road in morning traffic, praying for a green light ahead, remembering my old Eagle Scout CPR training and wondering if I'm going to have to put it to use on the sidewalk next to the car. The good news: my wife told me to drive her sports car instead my seven-foot-tall pickup truck (I would have had to sling mom into the passenger seat). The bad news: I'm in a private vehicle with someone having a heart attack, when, as my Montana buddy (who is both a cop and an emergency room nurse) sternly reminded me afterwards, a quick 911 call to the fire department two blocks away would have had my mother in a speeding ambulance, on oxygen, with a defibrillator standing by. The best news: we made it to the emergency room. And I knew that the moment we got her through those doors that her chances of survival suddenly got real good.

Years ago, when I was a young PR guy working at Hewlett-Packard, one of my jobs was to help write the company annual report. It was a dreary, soul-killing job, as annual reports always are to anyone who actually cares about writing, but it did have one nice perk: I got to travel around the country and look at the various HP divisions. One of those was in Waltham, Mass., home of the company's Medical Products Group. There I saw the development and manufacture of some of the first generations of measurement instruments designed not for the surgery, but hospital emergency rooms, critical care wards and most amazingly, neonatal departments.

A few years later, after I became a real journalist, there was a spate of scare books and media Cassandras that decried the dangers of computers and electronics in modern life. My trip to Waltham gave me a two-word response to those Luddites who saw only the threat of technology:

"Fetal Monitors."

Indeed, the digital revolution in medicine has been as fast-moving and likely more profound than its counterparts in business, science and entertainment. Yet, unless we regularly read the science pages of newspapers and magazines -- or actually find ourselves in a life-threatening medical emergency -- much of this revolution has been all but invisible in everyday life. The facility I took my mother to, El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, is, not surprisingly for an operation smack in the center of Silicon Valley, one of the most technologically sophisticated hospitals anywhere. Yet, even here the transformation of medical technology in recent years has been astonishing.

As it happens, my late father, who suffered multiple heart attacks, was also treated at El Camino nearly 20 years ago for a similar emergency to my mother's. He was in his 60s, out of shape but tough as nails, and with legendary recuperative powers. But after they lowered his body temperature, cracked his chest, cut lengths of blood vessels out of his thigh, sewed them onto his heart in four bypasses, then sewed him up, my old man took nearly six months to get back to form.

By comparison, from the moment my mother hit the emergency room, she was wrapped in technology. An EKG was tracking her heart chambers, an electronic monitoring system was watching everything from her oxygenation to her blood pressure, and nurses were running in and out of the room typing data into tablet PCs. Within an hour after I got her through the front door, doctors had already threaded a probe up from a tiny incision in her thigh into her heart, ballooned open a mostly-blocked coronary artery and installed a stent in the newly opened area. Within another hour, she was in a room, surrounded by even more digital monitoring equipment, being given drugs and blood (she was also anemic) through a computer-controlled injector attached to an IV.

Four days later (it might have been two without the anemia), she was back with me in the same car driving home to my house, where she rested for a few days under the constant attention of my wife and her two grandsons.Several times each day she took a cornucopia of pills -- some of them the new designer drugs -- and, with my help, used a portable digital tester to check her blood sugar (they found early diabetes, too -- Mom got the hat trick).

She went home to her house yesterday, where she is tended to by my sister and a visiting nurse. My 14-year-old and I stopped by to see her tonight. She was watching TV and eating dinner after a busy day of paying bills, reading her mail and planning a trip this summer back to Oklahoma. She also took a walk around the neighborhood.

"Jeez," my son said after we climbed back in the truck, "She already looks like grandma again."

It's one thing to design a device that can download 10,000 songs into a player the size of pack of playing cards; it's a whole other magnitude of accomplishment to enable a grandmother to see her grandchildren grow up.

I remember a few years ago interviewing some of the entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who were founding and investing in new companies to design innovative types of stents and optical probes for coronary artery repair. Back then it was merely an interesting idea -- last week, in my family at least, it became a medical necessity. To which, I can only say, thank God for high-tech.

A decade ago, I was in a TV studio interviewing an old acquaintance, the business writer Tom Peters. This was at the beginning of the dot-com boom and the height of the Human Genome Project, so after the shoot we stood around and talked about the amazing advances taking place in the tech world. At one point Tom said, "You know, I'm so glad I was alive to see the electronics revolution; and I am so glad that I won't be alive to see the biotech revolution." We both laughed ruefully.

But Tom Peters was -- and I think he'd now agree -- wrong on two counts. First, the biotech revolution came on faster than anyone expected. And second, I'll bet Tom is glad it has.

So am I. As it happens, that magazine story I was working on when my mother called was about Agilent Corp., the spinoff of HP that originally owned the Waltham plant. Agilent, I learned in my interviews, is racing to develop the next generation of pharmaceutical test and measurement equipment, the ones that will help create not just designer drugs, but drugs specifically designed for individual genetic groups. And, even as Mom was recovering in my guest room, San Francisco was chosen at the site of California's new $3 billion stem cell research program. Local VCs are already warming up their checkbooks. In other words, the medical technology miracle has just begun.

And that means, after a scary 10 days, I can rest easy. Mom is alive. My kids still have their grandma. And I know the hospital will be more prepared than ever when it's my turn to race through those emergency room doors.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor at large of Forbes ASAP magazine. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 20 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury-News as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He has hosted two national PBS shows: "Malone," a half-hour interview program that ran for nine years, and in 2001, a 16-part interview series called "Betting It All: The Entrepreneurs." Malone is best known as the author of a dozen books. His latest book, a collection of his best newspaper and magazine writings, is called "The Valley of Heart's Delight."