Saving lives at work is expected of hospital physicians, but sometimes they are called upon to use their skills when they least expect it.
Dr. Yen Cao, a second-year UNLV internal medicine resident, was on her way to work at University Medical Center the morning of Aug. 9 when she came across what appeared to be a recent accident. An overturned vehicle rested awkwardly at the side of the road near Tropicana Avenue and Durango Drive.
Cao hurried to the vehicle.
“The driver was unresponsive and had no pulse” the doctor recalled. “She was still buckled in her seatbelt.” That’s when Cao, all five feet, four inches of her, got down on her hands and knees and, along with four other good Samaritans, carefully removed the woman from the overturned vehicle.
With cars inching by and no sign of an ambulance yet, Cao started CPR, doing chest compressions in the street for about two minutes. Eventually a pulse returned, but soon became faint again.
Kneeling over the woman, Cao noticed her hair. “I remember she had beautiful long braids — that, and she was quite tall.”
Cao helped the ambulance crew assess the patient before paramedics eventually shocked her heart back into rhythm. The patient was then stable for the ride to the hospital.
As the ambulance pulled away, Cao realized she never learned the woman’s name or where they were taking her. In the days that followed, she wondered about the woman’s recovery.
Exactly one week later at UMC, a tall woman on crutches walked into the same elevator as Cao. The doctor couldn’t help but notice her beautiful braids. “Could that be her?” she wondered. Unfailingly polite, Cao decided not to say anything, but later that day went looking for the woman and found her.
“She started crying and we hugged,” Cao said. “It was a wonderful moment. She said she’d been looking for me, wondering who had been nice enough to stop.” They sat and talked for a while, holding hands the entire time. “She was very thankful, so grateful, and I was pleased there appeared to be no permanent damage.”
It turns out that the woman was being discharged later that day. She told Cao that she had blacked out while driving. If Cao hadn’t stopped and initiated CPR, there’s a chance the woman could have suffered brain damage or died.
“It’s a very good feeling to know I assisted someone, but I was not the only person who helped that day,” said Cao. Her heroic actions might have gone unrecognized if it weren’t for fellow resident Dr. Caleb Murphy reaching out to internal medicine residency director Dr. Sandhya Wahi-Gururaj, who alerted the UNLV School of Medicine’s communications department.
Cao and the patient were scheduled to be interviewed by a local TV station until the patient decided she did not want to appear on camera. That’s when Dr. Buddhadeb Dawn, chair of internal medicine, suggested recognizing Cao in some other way.
New Award Created
That prompted the School of Medicine to create the Above and Beyond Award, which will be presented to any school of medicine or UNLV Medicine employee for acts of courage or selfless service.
In October, founding Dean Barbara Atkinson and Dr. Dawn presented the award and a $100 check to Cao in front of several dozen internal medicine physicians.
“Dr. Cao’s bravery and her willingness to go out of her way to help a person in distress is a perfect example of what we want from our doctors,” Atkinson said. “I’m happy to present Dr. Yen Cao with the very first Above and Beyond Award.”
“It was a visceral decision” Cao told her colleagues who clamored for a speech. “It was something I think any one of us would do if placed in a similar situation. I want to help people. That’s why I became a doctor.”