It Takes a Village

Concept image: an orange bacteriophage rests on the corner of a PubMed search results page

Last Friday, the National Library of Medicine hosted a conversation with spouses and authors Dr. Steffanie Strathdee and Dr. Thomas Patterson about their book, The Perfect Predator, which details Tom’s extreme, sudden, and terrifying illness and his hard-fought return to health.

While vacationing in Egypt, Tom developed an infection in his pancreas brought on by a very rare organism, Acinetobacter baumannii, that could have quickly killed him. One of the world’s “super bugs,” Acinetobacter baumannii is antimicrobial resistant and can’t be treated by modern therapy.

Steffanie credits PubMed with giving her access to the research literature that helped her understand her husband’s problem, and most importantly, locate a promising but long-unused approach to treating such infections: bacteriophages. Bacteriophages are viruses that infect and replicate within bacteria, essentially rendering the bacteria non-infectious.

Let me say it loud and clear: NLM’s PubMed saves lives!

What a wonderful thing to know—that because of our resources, people can discover therapies that can be used to help heal even the most complex illnesses.

Bragging about our wonderful literature resources would be enough to warrant a blog post. However, that’s not the story I want to tell you today. Instead, I want to shine a light on the people across the Library who made this remarkable program possible.

First, a shout out to the Library Operations Technical Services Division and the NCBI’s PubMed and PubMed Central teams who create the collections, ensure the curation, and develop the web interface to our literature resources. Steffanie pointed out the essential role the long arc of PubMed resources played in her discovery, linking present-day users to biomedical and health sciences literature that spans over 150 years. Our PubMed team works to create an intuitive web interface that allowed a frightened but committed family member to find relevant studies, identify researchers exploring new treatments, and obtain articles that could be shared with Tom’s physician and care team.

Second, our communications staff broadly distributed announcements for the event. As a result, almost 100 people—including people from at least 10 different Institutes and three Institute and Center directors—attended the lecture despite the snowy spring morning. Our chief of visitor operations warmly greeted our guests, helping them feel welcome as they made their way to the auditorium on walkways cleared of snow by our grounds crew.

Finally, we had tremendous creative and technical support. Staff from the Lister Hill Center’s Audiovisual Programs Development Branch devised the unconventional image above showing a bacteriophage resting atop a PubMed results page, while their technical colleagues prepped the auditorium, hooked up the mics, and captured the event on video for posterity (link forthcoming).

My own gratitude for NLM staff members’ tremendous effort was echoed throughout the day by numerous positive comments from others. And while the speakers’ remarks evoked feelings of horror and sadness in the face of such a dramatic and terrifying ordeal, I also heard many express pride that PubMed played such an essential role in Steffanie’s discovery and Tom’s health. Man, oh man, am I proud, too!

5 thoughts on “It Takes a Village

  1. I am writing from a vacation in Egypt where one of my co-travelers is a retired ER doc. I saw the info and we read the article together. We were very disappointed from a medical perspective the this article did not 1) say how the patient was exposed to the organism; and 2) what the treatment entailed. We felt instead that the article was an ad for the library! It would be great if we could hear the answers to the points above before WE leave Egypt!
    Thank you from a former NIH researcher.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Indeed, this blog is about the National Library of Medicine from the perspective of me as the Director. While the visit of Drs. Strathdee and Patterson inspired the blog, the intent of my posting was indeed to showcase the Library, not to report a clinical case. The details (rich and exciting!) about the specific features of the clinical case are detailed in their book. Perhaps we should invite Steffanie and Tom to contribute a blog post for us!

      In the meantime, check out Steffanie’s TED talk in which she tells the whole story.


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