In an interview for a 2003 cover story, pediatric heart surgeon Dr. Jonathan Drummond-Webb told the Arkansas Times' Leslie Newell Peacock that he’d “wanted to blow his head off” the previous year because of surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his hip and the complications that developed. He also said he was sure the cancer would return. An athlete, Drummond-Webb said he was inspired by cancer survivor Lance Armstrong. Drummond-Webb wore an Armstrong “Livestrong” bracelet to support the famed biker’s cancer foundation.
Drummond-Webb took courage from his patients, too. “These kids saved me,” he told the Times.
But Drummond-Webb's cancer wasn’t a fatal variety, and in any case he had recently received a clean bill of health, Dr. Jonathan Bates, chief executive officer at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, said.
Christmas night, in the early hours of Dec. 26, Drummond-Webb went to his study, barricaded the door, and killed himself with an overdose of medicine. Just last week, Drummond-Webb had posed for a news photo with a teen-ager who would be going home for Christmas thanks to Drummond-Webb’s ground-breaking implant of a miniature heart pump that kept the teen alive until a heart transplant was possible. “This little kid is going to live to see the new year,” Bates said. “The irony is that he [Drummond-Webb] barely survives Christmas.”
Bates, who read Drummond-Webb’s suicide note, now in the Pulaski County Coroner’s case file and not yet available to the public, said the surgeon “always saw the dark side.” He performed some 600 heart surgeries a year, including a dozen or so transplants, and had the lowest mortality rate of any pediatric surgeon in the country — about 2 percent. But instead of looking at that as 588 lives saved, Bates said, the surgeon saw it as 12 deaths. “He was constantly looking for anything that would change those odds.”
In his note, Drummond-Webb expressed anger about things “that didn’t go perfectly around patient services and care.”
“He was just incredibly frustrated at not being able to control and direct every tiny variable, every physician, every consulting professional, every nurse … to work the way he wanted.”
Bates said Drummond-Webb, 45, a native of Johannesburg who’d worked at Arkansas Children’s Hospital since 2001, had endured a difficult childhood and that Christmas was an especially difficult time for him. “He coped with it privately,” Bates said.
Drummond-Webb also told the Times that he coped with the pressure of his work by knowing that “whatever decision I’m making — that the decision is correct.” He added, “I don’t get out much. I need a break.”
Bates lamented that “The sad story here is that nobody got it. Nobody had any idea that he was as desperate as he had to have been.”
The hospital plans to hold a memorial service at 11 a.m. Friday, Dec. 31, in Children’s Hall, in the former fellowship hall of Immanuel Baptist Church on Marshall Street.