Dr. Peter Stavrakis, a Pioneer of Emergency Medicine in Cecil County

Dr. Stavrakis on duty in the new hospital ER with Lois Schmeusser

As darkness settled on Elkton one Friday night in 1978, Union Hospital’s Emergency Department buzzed with activity.  The attending doctor, Peter Stavrakis, efficiently directed care, while nurses performed procedures, monitors beeped, and anxious families paced hallways.  When the physician started examining a new arrival, the belligerent man struck him on the head with a metal bed pan.  The resulting gash required sutures but Stavrakis, after briefly pausing to get stitched up, pressed on, refusing to slow down or take a break.  There were broken limbs, chest pain cases, and who knows what else to be seen that hectic night, as the 12-hour overnight shift ground on.

This injury was a small matter for a military surgeon who sharpened his skills on the battlefields of Europe and thrived on the hectic pace of emergency medicine.  It was also typical of the caregiver who put patients and profession first.Born in the Ukraine in 1917, Stavrakis earned his medical degree from Shevchenko University at the age of 21, graduating in the top 10% of the class.  Fresh out of school when World War II broke out, the physician gained combat know-how treating injured soldiers in the Red Army and was taken prisoner by Germany.  After the war, the refugee moved to Long Island with his family and $32 in his pocket so he worked as a gardener until finding a residency program.  When he hung out his shingle in Elkton on May 8, 1953, the cost for a visit was $3.

The healer practiced family medicine for 19 years, doing everything from delivering babies to treating broken limbs and helping ease the end of life.  Brenda Belay, a nurse, recalls that when she moved here in 1969 she took her family to the clinician since she saw how knowledgeable he was and how he cared for patients.  “He treated everyone the same, whether you could pay or not, and he was very popular.”

Creating an Emergency Dept. in the Local Hospital

When Union Hospital got ready to forge new territory he was ready for a fresh challenge so he turned his family practice over to Dr. Hsu in 1972 and took charge of creating an Emergency Department staffed by physicians concentrating exclusively on emergency medicine.  New life-saving technologies and techniques, changes in medicine, and increasing case loads called for highly skilled practitioners dedicated full-time to staffing the department around the clock.  He was the department’s Medical Director for 16 years where, seasoned by priceless lessons learned in war, the caregiver was in his element.

Maryland’s sophisticated emergency medical system of trauma centers and helicopter-transport, hadn’t evolved so Union Hospital handled everything from simple medical cases to desperately ill or severely injured patients,” Cathie Null, a nurse recalls.  “Now critical injuries are transported directly from the scene to Shock Trauma.  Medicine also didn’t have as many sophisticated pieces of diagnostic equipment or procedures in the 1970s.  But the knowledgeable physician had an innate diagnostic ability and a unique way of identifying what was wrong.  He took a good history, did a physical examination, ordered clinical tests, and swung into action, often treating patients hovering between life and death as he skillfully commanded care for trauma cases that are handled in Baltimore today,” she says.

“He was a wonderful diagnostician,” Connie Ceban, an ED nurse for 28 years adds.  “He was on his game when the worst cases came in, patients sometimes involved in an all out fight for life and in need of urgent care.  His war experience taught him how to deal with the trauma, and he was noted for his ability to suture wounds, without leaving a scar.  That was something he was proud of.”

Picking up on these points, his daughter, Olga Stavrakis, adds:  “He relied very heavily on observation of the patient’s eyes, face, expression, and demeanor. . . . He could see by the color of the skin and the look in the eye what was going on inside the human body.”  From his father, a highly acclaimed Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon in the Ukraine, he inherited “the ability to see into the patient and diagnose correctly and very steady hands that could perform minute surgery with confidence.  His hands remained steady up to the end.”

Serves as Medical Director to Start Advanced Life Support

With guidance from Stravakis, Cecil’s first pre-hospital advanced life support providers hit the road in 1978.  Before that field care largely consisted of a speedy ride in an ambulance with little medical equipment.  “Instrumental in getting the paramedic initiative started, he served as our medical director and was the program’s biggest advocate,” Shirley Herring, one of the members of that class recalls.  “He taught several lessons and we worked with him in the ER.  Anytime he had anything unusual, he always had time to explain it to us.”

Dr. Stavrakis has county’s first group of advanced Life Support Providers practice use of defbrillator as Frank Muller, the instructor, looks on.  L TO R (standing) — Frank Muller, Instructor; Mike Dixon, Pete Swyka, Shirley Herring, Keith Sinclair;  On the floor — Dr. Stavrakis; Eileen Reilly, Bill Adams.  Not pIctured David Herring.

 

I responded to my first heart attack call as an advanced life support provider in 1978.  It was in the middle of the night at a lonely spot miles from the hospital, and when we entered the darkened house the patient had a lethal heart rhythm.  I nervously transmitted an EKG and radioed crucial information to the hospital.  As the signal containing the heart pattern beamed into the hospital, this confident, authoritative voice blared over the network, penetrating the Maryland night.  It was Stavrakis shouting hurried orders for invasive procedures to defibrillate the heart, intubate the patient, start an IV, and administer drugs for critical seconds were rushing by.  Most apprehensive about executing these tasks without the doctor’s firm hand nearby for the first time, my hands begin to shake, badly, but  somehow I managed to follow the barrage of orders as he guided me through the process.

A little later at the hospital my hands were still shaking as I tried to hold a cup of coffee in those pre-dawn hours long ago.  I remember one of the aides, Edna, came over as I tried to steady the drink to ask what was wrong with me.  Somehow the distant guidance of the battle hardened World War II surgeon and his barrage of rapid fire commands got us through that first call.

Dr. Kenneth Lewis, the hospital’s president, recalls meeting the emergency medicine practitioner in 1978 when he first set up his office.  “Peter, who was a font of knowledge, set a high standard.  He knew all the specialties . . . and his commitment to patients and the profession was contagious.”

At the age of 77, having treated some 140,000 patients and seen enormous progress in medicine and Union Hospital, he hung up his stethoscope when he retired from the ER in 1994.  When family, friends, and colleagues gathered to honor him, he said, “Such a celebration for an old man who is going out of business,” as he talked about his professional life.  But he wasn’t going to ease completely into retirement for he returned to where he started, working with Dr. Hsu in her family practice.

Once when he was recuperating from shoulder surgery a colleague asked the physician if he had any hobbies, Olga notes.  “My father ignored the question dismissing it with an indulgent smile.  I took it upon myself to explain that my father had only one passion in life, which was his work, his hobby and his definition of self and that was his medicine.  Healing gave him life and healing sustained him.”

After he retired, we occasionally talked.  The last time was at a Middle Eastern Restaurant in Newark.  Walking in with a group, the aging physician came over to my table so we chatted about the past, his mind as sharp as ever.  At some point I said “Doc, I’d like to record your recollections someday.”   To that he replied matter of factly, just as authoritatively and clinically as when the chief of emergency medicine guided me through my first advanced medical procedures nearly 30 years ago, I’m dying.  I not sure how I responded, but to whatever it was he added directly yes and provided medical insight just as if he were explaining the complexities of the case to one of his paramedic students decades ago.  As our conversation ended all too soon that spring evening in 2006, it would be the last time I would talk to the 89-year-old.

The respected doctor who took care of generations of Cecil Countians, saved many lives, and contributed so much to this community as a health care innovator passed away on July 15, 2006.  I will always remember our last conversation.

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