The Doctor's Doctor

January 10, 2013

In a twist of fate, Saint John’s Health Center gastroenterologist Dr. Martha Hierro had the chance to save the life of her childhood pediatrician.

WRITTEN BY LORIE PARCH, PHOTOGRAPHED BY LAUREN PRESSEY

Dr. Martha Hierro and Konrad Ulich, MD
Dr. Martha Hierro and Konrad Ulich, MD
Few people forget their childhood pediatrician. After all, this is the person who explains things in a simple way so kids and their parents understand – the person who takes the anxiety out of scary situations. Martha Hierro, MD, had never forgotten the man who cared for her while she was growing up. So when the Saint John’s Health Center gastroenterologist was summoned to the emergency room on Labor Day to treat a patient with a gastrointestinal (GI) bleed, she was stunned by the name on the chart.

The patient was her own childhood pediatrician, Konrad Ulich, MD, age 88. And he was in trouble.

“He was pale and white. And I knew we had to act very quickly,” recalls Dr. Hierro, who immediately recognized the doctor who’d cared for her as a girl. “It brought tears to my eyes when I saw him in the ER and in the ICU because I believe that we are all connected in life. Dr. Ulich cared for me for many years as a child, and all of a sudden fate brought us together once again; only now it was my turn to serve him.”

Dr. Ulich was experiencing the lifethreatening GI bleed as the result of anticlotting drugs he’d been prescribed following surgery for a leg fracture in April. Such bleeding is a common side effect of anticoagulant drugs, but it had put the retired pediatrician, who operated his medical practice in the San Fernando Valley for more than 40 years, in very serious condition.

He had noticed some bleeding from the rectum. Then, he explains, “I was watching my family play tennis, and my son David said, ‘You look terrible.’ So we came to the hospital.”

Dr. Hierro, who’s been a gastroenterologist at Saint John’s Health Center for nearly 21 years, quickly assessed the situation and went to work on the doctor who’d cared for her, her sister Gloria and her brother Ernesto as kids. First, she performed a therapeutic endoscopy, a minimally invasive procedure, to examine the source of the bleeding.

She found a bleeding ulcer with a very large clot and consulted with Stephen Kuchenbecker, MD, chief of surgery at Saint John’s Health Center. They decided they could avoid a complex and risky surgery.

“We were able to do another endoscopy with therapeutic coagulation,” which stopped the bleeding, says Dr. Hierro.

Konrad Ulich, MD
Konrad Ulich, MD
Dr. Ulich is now on his way to a full recovery and anxious to return to his active life. “I feel fine,” he says, asking Dr. Hierro when he can get back to driving and give up his walker. “My main complaint is that I can’t walk as well as I would like.”

For Dr. Hierro, seeing her pediatrician reminded her of what a powerful early influence he was. As a child, she was intrigued with medicine and admired her pediatrician. “You were the first white coat to encourage me to wear that white coat,” Dr. Hierro told Dr. Ulich on an October morning when the two met for a follow-up visit.

The German-born Dr. Ulich says he’s grateful to have inspired her. He is also a dedicated father to three grown children. Dr. Ulich’s wife, Gisela, who died in 2011, was a psychiatrist at Saint John’s Health Center.

In yet another twist connecting the Hierro and Ulich families, Dr. Hierro’s sister Gloria went on to become a pediatrician – one with a unique link to Dr. Ulich. “As fate would have it, when Dr. Ulich retired, he handed my sister his practice,” says Dr. Hierro, who was born at Saint John’s Health Center. “To this day, Gloria is eternally grateful. So Dr. Ulich has a special place in the Hierro family’s heart.”

For Dr. Hierro, working at the Health Center means living the hospital’s mission of serving all. “It gives me the opportunity to take care of patients from all walks of life,” she says.

But nothing beats the feeling of caring for someone who so lovingly guarded her health and development as a child. “It’s been my honor to take care of my pediatrician, who for so many years was my mother’s go-to guy,” she says.