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As director of a state-of-the-art training program at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, Charles Bortle is at the forefront of advanced medical education.
As a young man, the only thing Charles Bortle knew for certain was that he wanted to help people. That desire has guided him in his endeavors ever since, from paramedic and teacher to earning two advanced degrees from University of Phoenix. He is currently director of a state-of-the-art training program at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia.
“My biggest reward has been to see the next generation of healers and educators draw from what I’ve shared with them,” says the engaging 54-year-old who has a unique outlook on life. Bortle has renal cell carcinoma, and doctors have given him two years to live. Despite the devastating diagnosis, Bortle is determined to leave a lasting legacy.
Bortle grew up in the western Massachusetts town of East Longmeadow, outside Springfield. After graduating from the pre-med program at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania 1982, Bortle took a job as an attendant at a local hospital. During that time, he also earned his credentials as a paramedic, and then began teaching the skill, which eventually became his life’s chief calling.
For 11 years, he was clinical coordinator, then director of the paramedic program at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Lancaster. Bortle also worked part time as a flight medic and paramedic. “Working the streets is long periods of routine punctuated by bursts of high-adrenaline excitement,” he says. “That’s what you live for, and it’s very fulfilling. It’s life-and-death, direct patient care. You see the results of what you do.”
Bortle began running the paramedic program at Albert Einstein Medical Center in 1996. The drive to advance and better serve patients led him to the University of Phoenix, where he earned his master’s in education in 2003.
After completing his doctorate in 2007, Bortle was named director of Einstein’s new Simulation Center. The job puts him at the vanguard of advanced medical education, something he has always prized. He has delivered more than 200 lectures at state, national and international conferences and has written or co-written chapters in six books, covering topics such as the treatment of bullet or knife wounds, burn trauma and respiratory arrest. “Being published in the Merck Manual, and in rewrites of the same textbook I used as a student in paramedic school, are two highlights of my career,” he says.
Today he works with state-of-the-art technology to teach medical professionals how to respond in any situation. The mannequin-simulators he uses at Einstein have a full range of breath sounds and heart tones. They have pulses, can breathe, sweat, have pupils that react to light, and they can communicate—either with prerecorded words, or with Bortle speaking through a microphone in a control room. The mannequin then repeats those same words. Bortle and his staff can even program them to respond to medications and mimic almost any cardiac rhythm with pulse and blood pressure to match.
The work is analogous to pilots training with flight simulators. “It’s unlikely many pilots have ever crash landed a plane, but you hope they’ve done so in simulation many times,” says Bortle. “It’s the same with medical students and residents. We want them to repeatedly confront mock cardiac arrest scenarios.”
The center also trained staffers to measure things not usually measurable. Their childbirth simulators, for example, have stress sensors in the baby’s neck to tell obstetricians and emergency residents how hard they are pulling on the neck during difficult deliveries. The idea is to use the smallest amount of force possible. “We’ve only begun to understand how valuable simulation training might be,” Bortle says. “It addresses the complex issues of leadership, confidence and skill mastery in ways not possible in traditional classrooms.”
Bortle loves his job and can’t wait to get there every morning, even though he does so under the dark cloud of his cancer. The diagnosis is devastating, of course, but this former paramedic looks at it from a unique perspective.
“I’ve closed the eyes of many people who didn’t expect to die when they woke up that day, and I consider it a gift to have forewarning of my own mortality,” he says. “That’s not to say that I couldn’t die in a horrible crash on my way home today, but the odds are my death will be predictable and I’ll be surrounded by the people I love.”
In his remaining time, Bortle is traveling as much as possible and spending every available moment with his family. He and his wife, Deborah, have been married 22 years and have three children and five grandchildren.
As he looks back, Bortle’s proudest achievements, apart from his family, have been as a teacher—and that counts as one of life’s odd twists. Before entering the classroom to teach paramedics more than 20 years ago, he had no idea if he could do so effectively.
“To my surprise, I discovered I have a natural talent for it,” he says. It drives him to this day. Bortle has accepted an invitation to speak at this year’s graduation of Einstein’s emergency medicine residents. He’ll encourage the new doctors to consider the emotional needs of the critically ill, in addition to their lab values and radiology reports.
These many years later, the teacher is still on the job. “When I’m watching people doing something I taught them, or better yet, when I hear my words come out of their mouth, that’s the most fulfilling thing to me,” says Bortle. “Watching someone treat a patient using skills I taught them has meant more to me than treating that patient myself. That’s my most satisfying legacy.”
Leo W. Banks is a writer in Tucson.