Pathologist Impacts Lives Thousands of Miles Away

After working as a physician in New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, pathologist Greg Henderson, MD, became determined to aid those around the world who don't have access to diagnostic care and created technology that allows him to do so from his laptop.

Sometimes, as good fortune smiles down on us, we find ourselves in the right place at the right time. For pathologist Greg Henderson, MD, being in New Orleans just as Hurricane Katrina was about to clobber southern Louisiana turned out to be most fortuitous, surprisingly.

Henderson was just about to start his new job as a pathologist with the Ochsner Clinic when word spread that the horrific storm was bearing down. He evacuated his family, but then stayed behind because he recognized the need for physicians would be paramount in the storm’s aftermath.

“The reality is, I did what most people would do if you were standing by a lake and a child fell in the water,” Henderson explains. “How many people would debate whether they were going to go in and get the kid?”

Henderson went in. And the experience, he recalls, was life altering.

“I don’t think it overstates it to say that seeing and experiencing something like that, first as a human being and second as a physician, just so fundamentally changes you at the spiritual level,” he says.

And for Henderson, those changes were all positive.

Totally reactionary

In the midst of the devastation that Katrina left in her wake, Henderson says he did little more than simply react; responding, as just about everyone else did in a truly unimaginable situation.

“You look up and two weeks have gone by, and you’re not dead, yet, and you wonder, what have I been doing?” Henderson recalls. “But you can’t overthink it.”

Henderson has heard people say that being in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina was like being in battle. His two-fold response to that is that he has never gone through the stress that soldiers do when they’re getting shot at. Katrina was bad, he agrees, but not that bad. However, usually in battle there’s some sort of plan of action or strategy for what needs to be done — that wasn’t the case in New Orleans.

“We literally said, ‘Okay, how are we going to get these people fed? How are we going to accomplish such and such?’ And just kind of winged it for a couple of weeks,” he remembers.

A fundamental reconnection

What Henderson emerged from New Orleans with was a very rare experience: living in a situation for quite some time where all access to medical care or any therapy, either electronic or direct, is completely abolished.

“It stays with you,” Henderson explains, “and then you start thinking, ‘well, what did I learn out of that? What could I do to scale my abilities to make sure that sort of gap is never opened again?’”

He likens the experience to what Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey goes through in It’s a Wonderful Life. Working in New Orleans under those circumstances made him realize how important his work as a doctor is.

Henderson began wondering, if there was anywhere else in the world where access to health care in general and physicians specifically was in such short supply. The answer, he recalls, was pretty striking — access to diagnostic care in much of the world is difficult, at best.

Then, he embarked upon efforts to figure out how he could provide care as a pathologist to people who were 4,000 miles away. The answer came as a result of yet another natural disaster.

Disaster provides opportunity

When a massive earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, David Walmer, MD, OB/GYN, chairman of Durham, N.C.-based Family Health Ministries, reached out to Henderson. Walmer was in the process of building a pathology laboratory as part of a large-scale cervical cancer prevention project in Haiti. However, the earthquake destroyed everything.

Walmer had 200 cervical biopsies from patients who had survived the earthquake. Could Henderson handle them?

“I said, sure, so he literally sent the tissue and vials to my laboratory,” Henderson explains. “We got them, we processed them, and I basically reported them out to him. But the key thing was that it was the first time that we were able to really show the utility of the information system that we had developed in collaboration with PathCentral. PathCentral is a company that I was sort of a consultant in founding. And what the company offered was the first anatomic pathology information system that was based in the cloud.”

That was one step in the right direction, Henderson says, but he recognized that it wasn’t feasible long-term to be sending tissue samples all around the world. The second piece of the puzzle was figuring out how to leverage the recently emerged technology of whole slide imaging — taking glass slides with pieces of tissue on them, putting them into a scanner and completely digitizing the image.

Henderson and a colleague began partnering with companies that were on the cutting edge in terms of managing those types of images and using the technology serve patients in Haiti.

“What happens is those specimens for Haiti are processed in a laboratory and slides are made, and they’re scanned, and they’re sent to our servers, and I can completely take care of patients from Haiti with my laptop computer from anywhere I am, as long as I have an Internet connection,” says Henderson.

The process, Henderson soon realized, needed to become its own branded business. As a result, he and a partner founded PathForce. They can connect pathologists and patients all around the world who need help. The whole process has been very rewarding, professionally, he says.

“We can do a lot more, and we’re going to do a lot more, but at this point, I’ve probably taken care of about 500 patients in Haiti that simply would not have had access to a diagnosis at all,” Henderson says. “And that’s 500 people that I know I’ve directly impacted their life in a very positive way.”