When Della Lin graduated from high school in Champagne-Urbana, Ill., at age 15, she thought she knew the course ahead. On track to become a professional pianist, she'd already performed with the Chicago Symphony. Practicing five hours a day left little time for other activities, but she accepted that.
"Obviously, you have to give up certain things to make that decision," Lin says. She was accepted by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. But because she was too young to move there alone, Lin enrolled at the University of Illinois and began earning her bachelor's degree in music.
However, a close family friend dissuaded Lin from pursuing music as a career. "Your life will be up to the critics," this "auntie" told her. She advised her to go into science instead, an interest Lin inherited from her dad, an aeronautical engineer. "There's no black and white in music," her auntie said. "Science has more certainty."
So Lin completed her bachelor's degree in music, and concurrently earned degrees in chemistry and biochemistry. Then, armed with the discipline she'd acquired studying music, she began medical school at the University of California at San Diego. Under a fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, she also did research on neuro-anesthesia and genetic metabolism disorders.
The research was intriguing, Lin says, but working with lab rats wasn't. She found her fit in clinical anesthesia and has been an anesthesiologist at The Queen's Medical Center since 1989, six years of it as department chief. She is happy, but wonders at times about the musical ambitions she relinquished. "I know now that there is very little about science that is black and white," she says.
Lin rarely plays the piano now, instead spending her free time on two new passions. Two years ago, she and her husband, Lee Guertler, an interventional cardiologist, bought a 1,200-acre sheep ranch in New Zealand. In addition to sheep, they raise cattle and deer -- for their antler velvet. "It's used as a tonic in Asia and the Pacific Rim," Lin explains, adding, "You don't have to kill the deer -- they regenerate the velvet."
The couple visits the ranch several times a year, a kind of working vacation. But Lin is quick to admit her lack of experience. "Our new friends there probably laugh at my efforts," she says. "They probably see me like Billy Crystal trying to be a dude rancher in City Slickers."
She is an expert at her other interest, the science of patient safety, and speaks around the country as a National Patient Safety Foundation leadership fellow. Patient safety science focuses on finding system solutions to avoid harm from medical errors at every level, from government policy to hospitals, doctors and patients. "Doctors make errors, slips and lapses, not because we mean to, but because we're human," Lin says.
She mentions Betsy Lehman, the 44-year-old Boston Globe reporter who died after mistakenly receiving a quadruple dose of chemotherapy. Soon after, a similar error occurred at a hospital in the Midwest. "It's sad that we can't accelerate learning and change so that we never have to repeat these errors," Lin says.
As an anesthesiologist, Lin is part of a specialty celebrated for its advances in improving patient safety. In the past, one in 5,000 patients died while under anesthesia. Today, thanks to practical innovations like the patient finger clip that allows anesthesiologists to monitor patients' blood-oxygen levels during surgery, anesthesia-related death rates have declined to one out of every 200,000 to 300,000 cases, according to studies compiled by the Institute of Medicine. Lin would like to see similar advances occur throughout the health care system.
She admits that the quest to redesign health care is an ambitious one. It's hard to balance stability with change and quality with cost effectiveness while meeting the needs of employers, health plans, hospitals, doctors and patients. But, Lin says, "if we can take the best from each, we can create a better, safer health care experience."