An Arab princess visited the office of neurosurgeon William Hyman for her annual checkup Saturday, her fourth since Hyman operated successfully on a pinched nerve in her neck in 1981.
Just how the aunt of the ruling monarch of Oman, a mountainous, oil-rich country in the Mideast, became his patient at the Atlantic Medical Center is like "something out of 'The Arabian Nights,' " Hyman said.
It all started in 1979, Hyman recalled, when he operated on an Omani deputy minister suffering from severe neck and arm pain. The official, a business partner of one of Hyman's former American patients, had seen doctors in Oman and London who told him the pain would never go away.
Hyman, of Long Beach, a neurosurgeon at the center for 24 years, performed what he said was a "straightforward" operation to remove a slipped disk and the official's pain disappeared.
A year later, Hyman was visited by a second Omani from a prominent government family. The man was becoming paralyzed in his right arm and had sought treatment in Switzerland without success.
Hyman removed a tumor that was pressing on the patient's spinal cord, and the man flew home with a new lease on life.
What happened next to the genial 57-year-old surgeon has all the ingredients of one of the thousand and one ancient tales told by Scheherazade.
On returning to their country on the Arabian Sea, the two grateful patients spread word of "Magic Doctor Hyman" among their wealthy friends. Hundreds of Omani patients--most of them relatives of the Sultan Kaboos ibn Said and his cabinet ministers--began to beat a path halfway around the world to Hyman's office.
"They started coming over by the bucketful," Hyman said. "They come for everything--heart, stomach and skin trouble, infertility, vertigo and acne. I'm sort of their family doctor."
Operations Weren't Magic
His first two operations on Omanis were "not magic," Hyman said with a chuckle. "It was things I do every day. But to them it was kind of like a miracle. And once you develop a trust, they trust you for everything. It's as if you can do no wrong."
This year alone, Hyman said, he has seen 200 patients from Oman in his office on East 28th Street, referring the majority to specialists in other fields and also looking after the Omanis during their stays.
"There's a warmth," Hyman said of his Mideastern patients. "The chemistry is right between them and me. If you've got that, then you have a lot."
The Omanis pay their bills through a business agent in Los Angeles, but they also shower Hyman with gifts, including wristwatches and silver crafts from Oman.
Since 1979, Hyman said, he has operated on or referred for treatment the Omani sultan's aunt, the Grand Mufti (Oman's highest holy man), the governor of Muscat (the capital city), the foreign minister and his parents, the ministers of communications, commerce, land and agriculture and the administrator of the royal palace.
Treated Queen Mother
At the request of the palace, Hyman handpicked and accompanied a team of American doctors to Oman in 1983 to make recommendations for treatment of the Queen Mother, who has diabetes.
And just last month, Hyman said, he found a speech teacher in Maryland to tutor the daughter of an Omani minister in Arabic and English. The daughter, 22, is partially deaf and has never learned to speak.
As a guest of government ministers and the palace, Hyman has traveled to Oman six times, including three trips with his wife, Gerry Stramski, a pediatrician. Hyman and Stramski plan to visit Oman again in November.
As part of each two-week visit, the two doctors see about 130 patients at their hotel, Hyman said. They also fly by helicopter into the desert to treat the nomadic herdsmen known as Bedouins. Oman pays all the expenses and, in exchange, the two Long Beach physicians treat the patients without charge.
As recently as 1970, only 35 people were employed in health care in Oman, reference literature shows. Starting from scratch, the present sultan, who deposed his tyrannical father, Said ibn Taimur, in 1970, built a network of clinics and health centers throughout the country of 1 million people, importing Indian, Pakistani and English doctors and nurses. Today, the hospitals are "vastly overcrowded," Hyman said, and no doctors are available to perform brain, heart, hip or knee surgery.
Free Health Care
Health care is free, but the government still has "a way to go" in educating the population in immunizations, nutrition and preventive medicine, Hyman said. However, a government university with a medical school is being built near Muscat. In about 25 years, Hyman predicted, health care will be handled completely by Omanis.
During their visits, Hyman and his wife are feted with rich banquets and feasts--even picnics at the beach on Persian rugs. Hyman, who six years ago had to look in an encyclopedia to find Oman, has now learned some of the history of the country, which in ancient times was an empire built on sea trade, including the export of frankincense.
He has also learned to follow local customs, such as that of kissing Omani men on both cheeks and never kissing the women, Hyman said, laughing.
At his Long Beach office on a recent weekday, surrounded by ornate silver coffeepots and khunjas , or daggers, given to him by Omani patients, Hyman spoke warmly of his "Omani connection."
"It's fascinating to me," Hyman said. "It's a lovely, lovely experience to come at this stage in my life. It's like the icing on the cake."