Del Mar resident’s distinguished career in undersea medicine inspired by an educational cartoon and an early passion for diving
By Arthur Lightbourn
World renowned dive medicine specialist, researcher and writer, Dr. Tom Neuman was recently honored by Divers Alert Network (DAN) with the 2011 DAN/Rolex Diver of the Year Award.
A practitioner of undersea medicine for more than 35 years, Neuman is a University of California San Diego professor emeritus of clinical medicine and founder of the Hyperbaric Medicine Center at UCSD’s Hillcrest Medical Center.
The hyperbaric center uses a pressurized oxygen therapy chamber that can seat up to 12 patients per session to hasten the healing of wounds, infections, carbon monoxide poisoning; and conditions specifically encountered by divers, including decompression sickness (“the bends”), gas embolisms and gas toxicity.
“If you think of oxygen like a pharmaceutical,” Neuman explained, “by breathing the oxygen through a mask or hood at a higher atmospheric pressure, you in essence drive more oxygen to the wound. And many of these wounds are present in the first place because the oxygen supply was deficient either because of bad circulation, bad blood vessels, scarring from radiation, or a whole host of different reasons why oxygen, specifically blood, was not getting to the wounds.”
Neuman served as director of the hyperbaric center from its inception in 1984 until 2006 when he semi-retired.
We interviewed Neuman, 64, in his home in Del Mar, which he shares with his wife and diving companion of 41 years, Doris, and their 12-year-old Yellow Lab, Middy.
He still goes to the hyperbaric chamber “infrequently” he admits, attends hyperbaric conferences more frequently, works on research profits continually, and, with his wife, travels the world often in search of the best dive sites.
The day we interviewed him he was preparing for a trip to Northern California to dive for abalone.
Neuman was born in New York City. His brother, Ron, is a surgeon in Orange County. His Austrian-born father fled the Nazis and immigrated to the U.S. in 1938. During World War II, because he was multilingual (German, French, Italian and English), his father served in the U.S. wartime intelligence agency, the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). After the war, he opened a retail shop, selling yarn and knitting needles. Neuman’s mother, also Austrian-born, served in the Office of Censorship during the war, deciphering codes to track German agents.
Neuman was first attracted to the science of medicine as a child while watching a television cartoon featuring “Hemo, the Magnificent.”
“It was an educational cartoon about blood,” he recalls.
That did it for Neuman. He determined to become a physician.
Later, as a teen, coming as he did from a family of swimmers, he soon discovered what was to become another lifetime passion: snorkeling and scuba diving; initially, off the long jetty at Jones Beach during summer vacations in search of lobsters.
And he did well academically.
Looking back, he says, “I recognize that I have certain assets, by chance or God. I’m smart. There’s no denying it. I’m a smart guy, but I’m also ugly and I don’t play in the sandbox well.
“I’m horrendously coordinated. When I was a child when kids were choosing baseball teams, I got chosen after the girls. I couldn’t catch a ball and I couldn’t hit a ball with a bat.”
So for him to learn how to do anything that required good hand and eye coordination required an immense of practice and work and effort.
“Diving came easily to me. Not the physical strength parts of it. Not the swimming fast part of it whenever I would swim fast. But being in the water came easily.”
He completed his pre-med A.B. at Cornell University in 1967; his M.D. from New York University School of Medicine in 1971; and his internship, followed by residency in internal medicine, at Bellevue Hospital, New York City, 1971-73.
Under the Vietnam War “Berry Plan,” he was allowed a one-year draft deferment until completion of his medical training, after which, because of his interest in diving, he joined the Navy serving on active duty as a submarine and diving medical officer from 1973 to 1980 and subsequently in the U.S. Naval Reserves until 1996, attaining the rank of captain.
While on active duty, he completed a fellowship in pulmonary medicine and physiology at UCSD in 1978 and afterwards joined the faculty of UCSD School of Medicine as a clinician (emergency, pulmonary and hyperbaric), teacher and researcher.
Because of his expertise in diving medicine, for decades, he assisted the San Diego County coroner’s office in the investigation of diving fatalities.
He is the contributing author and editor of three books that grew out of his research and experience: “Physiology and Medicine of Diving,” “Physiology and Medicine of Hyperbolic Oxygen Therapy,” and “Investigating Recreational and Commercial Diving Accidents.”
What, in his career as a physician, gave him the greatest satisfaction?
“I would say that obviously the reason you become a physician is you enjoy and want to help other people. But at the same time, it’s a tremendous intellectual challenge and very satisfying to be able to figure out what’s wrong with people, to advance knowledge and particularly to dispel myths.”
For example, he was instrumental in dispelling the belief that asthmatics shouldn’t dive. He helped prove, in fact, that under the right conditions, asthmatics were under no significantly increased risk for diving accidents.
“It was very satisfying to sort of go into the temple and smash that idol,” he said.
Another example, he said, is that medical examiners will invariably ascribe every scuba diving death to drowning.
“That’s one of those things that doesn’t necessarily make sense. Sure it makes sense if you’re trapped in a wreck and can’t get to the surface, or if you get tied up in a lobster pot, or if you get entangled in kelp and can’t get out, you are going to drown; but that makes absolutely no sense if a guy is swimming back to the boat and all of a sudden turns turtle and is dead.”
The most common cause of death among male divers 45 and older is the same as it is for that same age group in the population as a whole, he said: a heart dysfunction that results in what is commonly referred to as a “heart attack” that causes the heart to stop beating.
Among young, novice divers, arterial gas embolism (an arterial blockage by air) is probably the leading cause of death, Neuman said, typically occurring when divers run out of air in their tank, panic, and even though they are taught not to, hold their breath while ascending to the surface.
Contrary to popular belief, he said, “People hardly ever die from the bends (a form of decompression sickness). “In all my years in diving medicine, I have only seen two deaths related to the bends.”
What does he love so much about diving?
“Just being there,” he said. “I generally don’t take pictures. Unless I’m going up to Northern California for abalone, I’m not much of a spear fisherman anymore. I used to that when I was a young man. I just like looking around. I like being with my wife in the water.”
Name: Tom S. Neuman, M.D., FACP, FACPM
Distinction: UCSD professor emeritus of clinical medicine and practitioner of undersea medicine for more than 35 years,
Dr. Neuman was recently honored with the 2011 Dan/Rolex Diver of the Year Award for his research and contributions to dive safety.
Resident of: Del Mar, since 1974
Born: New York City, 64 years ago
Education: A.B., Cornell University, 1967; M.D., New York University School of Medicine, 1971; internship, followed by residency in internal medicine, Bellevue Hospital, New York City, 1971-73; fellowship in pulmonary medicine and physiology, University of California, San Diego, medical center and affiliated hospitals, 1976-78.
Military: Served as a U.S. Navy submarine medical officer, 1973-80; and medical officer in the U.S. Naval Reserves, including five years with Reserve Seal Teams, 1980-1996.
Family: He and his wife/diving partner, Doris (nee Rubin), who met in college, have been married 41 years. They have two grown children, daughter Allison, 31, who lives in Northern California, and son Russell, 25, who will graduate in June from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in psychology.
Pet: Middy, 12-year-old Yellow Lab
Interests: Snorkeling and scuba diving, travel related to diving, hiking, fishing, bird hunting and cooking
Favorite films: “Casablanca” and “My Cousin Vinny”
Philosophy: “You have to look at life realistically and some of the realities of life are: life’s not fair, there’s no free lunch;…and I believe in taking responsibility for your own behavior. You make of life what you put into it.”
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