The following article was submitted by Alan Coulson, M.D., a panel physician at the Sandhills Center for Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Medicine in Hamlet. He is board certified in hyperbaric medicine and a certified wound care specialist.
The year was 1950 and a young missionary, Reverend William Bouw, his wife and three-year-old daughter, set sail from Los Angeles to cross the Pacific Ocean to the distant island of Borneo.
Bouw was determined to convert the Dayak headhunters living in the dangerous interior of the island from their religion of Kaharingan animism to Christianity.
Borneo is 10,000 miles away from Hamlet, and looms five times bigger than North Carolina. But the most terrifying part is that among the Dayak people, decapitation is considered an important cultural ‘norm’ and for traditional reasons, the victim has to remain alive until the head is all the way off. Women and children are choice targets.
At this point, the reader could be forgiven for thinking that the Bouw was about to reprise the role of John the Baptist or even more fitting from our perspective, the part of Yorick in Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet.”
But, no, it’s not that; truth being stranger than fiction, the connection to Hamlet is the Sandhills Center for Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Medicine and the antibiotic Vancomycin.
Because about the same time the intrepid Bouw family set foot on Borneo, Penicillin stopped working on the really bad hospital bacteria. After 10 years of use, the Staphylococci had developed resistance; patients started dying again.
In the frantic search for a replacement for Penicillin, the Eli Lilly Company sent for soil samples in remote parts of the world to see what bacteria and fungi they contained, hoping serendipity would lend a hand and a new antibiotic be discovered.
They were trying to emulate Dr. Alexander Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin, a chemical warfare protein made by the fungus Penicilium, designed to keep other competing micro-organisms at bay. It was encouraging that a soil sample from the Philippines had already yielded the new antibiotic Erythromycin.
And for the ultimate treasure hunt, what could be a more remote and exotic locale than central Borneo? So, in due course, a messenger arrived at the mission church stressing the need for a soil sample from an area “off the beaten track.”
Leaving his family behind, Bouw headed off into the jungle with the Dayaks. It must have been a surrealistic scene as the missionary looked around then chose a spot and stuck his Q-tip in the soil.
One can imagine the canopies of vines overhead, the beams of light from the tropical sun penetrating the lush greenness of the rain forest, the exotic butterflies and the naked Dayak audience trying to understand what Bouw was doing.
After a long journey, Bouw’s specimen reached the United States, where amazingly this sample grew out the bacterium Amycolatopsis orientalis, a very rare species that just happens to manufacture the chemical Vancomycin for its own self protection.
Bouw had struck medical gold; because when Vancomycin was tested in patients it was found to be incredibly successful, killing even the most deadly Staphylococcus, and better yet, killing MRSA, the Methicillin Resistant strain of Staphylococcus. A new antibiotic had been discovered!
The statistical odds of the missionary sampling the correct few grains of soil are over a billion to one. Sufficient of a long shot to strongly suggest to my mind some kind of divine intervention. It is not recorded how many Dayak souls Bouw saved over the decade he spent in Borneo, but by now the antibiotic he discovered must have saved a million lives.
However, no good deed goes unpunished. Disaster struck. Missionaries including the Bouw family were driven out of Borneo in 1960 by anti-Christian forces in the government.
This brings us back to Hamlet 50 years later - where it is unusual to see severed heads except around Halloween - but we do prescribe a lot of Vancomycin.
It is used to treat bone infections and difficult wound infections at Sandhills Regional Medical Center. Many times, we have to combine the antibiotic treatment with hyperbaric oxygen, as the high pressure of oxygen makes the Vancomycin even more effective. Many limbs have been saved this way.
So next time you see a mention of the antibiotic Vancomycin, a silent tribute is in order to the vision and the incredible courage of the Bouw. He met with triumph and disaster and treated those two imposters just the same.
Dr. Alan Coulson is a panel physician at The Sandhills Center for Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Medicine. He is board certified in Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine and is a published author.
The Wound Care Center is located at 108 Endo Lane, Suite 2, in Hamlet. It offers advanced treatment for hard-to-heal wounds and bone infections, and operates two hyperbaric chambers. New patients and self-referrals are welcome. For more information, call 910-205-1525.