Cardiologist pursues new challenge as writer of medical thrillers
Feb. 20, 2014
A pioneer in implementing pacemaker technology, Douglas P. Zipes, M.D., is well known around the world as a physician and researcher who led the way in the field of cardiology.
Fewer, however, know him as a novelist. The author of two medical thrillers, Dr. Zipes, IUPUI Distinguished Professor Emeritus and professor emeritus of medicine at the IU School of Medicine, quietly pursued a passion as a writer for many years in between service as a physician, researcher, journal editor and medical consultant before the publication of his first book in 2011.
"I love to write, I love the written word, and many years ago, I read a best-selling medical thriller written by a physician and I thought to myself, 'I can do that, and I can do it better,'" Dr. Zipes said. "But, it turns out that it’s not that easy. Although I had written and published well over 800 medical articles and multiple textbooks, writing fiction is an entirely different challenge. I had to totally re-learn how to write in the genre."
Dr. Zipes is the founding editor of HeartRhythm, the journal of the HeartRhythm Society, for which he served as editor until December 2013. His first work of fiction was inspired in part by personal experiences as a consultant at Medtronic, a medical device company that formerly produced a pacemaker powered by plutonium. In his first book, "The Black Widows," two elderly women in upstate New York who run a worldwide terrorist cell commit a series of seemingly random killings against people with these pacemakers in a plot to build a nuclear bomb. The final chapters of the book are set in Jordan, Israel, a country where Dr. Zipes helped found an annual program for Middle Eastern cardiologists, now organized by the American College of Cardiology.
Last year, Dr. Zipes, who also established the Middle East Cardiovascular Symposium, was invited to lecture at the 60th anniversary of the Israel Heart Society in Jerusalem. The event took place in conjunction with Israel's 65th year as a country. In relation to the milestone, Dr. Zipes was among the speakers to meet Shimon Peres, the country's president.
"I brought a copy of my book as a gift and, later, got an email from his office saying he was pleased to receive it and that he intended to read it," Dr. Zipes said. "I'm hoping he puts a five-star review on Amazon."
Peres isn't the only world leader to hold a novel by Dr. Zipes. Last year, Bill Clinton served as the keynote speaker for the Heart Rhythm Society's annual meeting in Denver. As a past president of the group, Dr. Zipes got the chance to meet the former U.S. president. Again, he brought a book, in part because his inaugural novels' two elderly murderesses live in Chappaqua, N.Y., the town where the Clintons moved before Hillary's run for senator of the state.
"As I was headed to the photo op, the Secret Service stopped me and said, 'No way you're bringing in your book; all packages must be left behind,'" Dr. Zipes said. "I put down the book, got my photo, and, in talking to the president, I mentioned that I was from Pleasantville, New York, two miles from his home, and that I had written a novel set in Chappaqua. 'Where is it?' he said. 'Go get it; I want to read that book!' So the Secret Service went and brought it in. Bill was very enthusiastic about it."
Dr. Zipes' second novel, "Ripples in Opperman's Pond," was also inspired in part by personal experiences, including time spent as an expert in several high-profile legal trials. In the first, he was a witness for the defense in a suit brought against the physician of Reggie Lewis, a basketball player for the Boston Celtics who died after a collapse on the court. In the second, he was a medical expert in several trials against pharmaceutical maker Merck, which was accused of ignoring evidence that Vioxx could cause heart attack and stroke. In the novel, a cardiologist and a drug company CEO who are brothers team up to save an Indianapolis Pacers basketball star from injuries sustained on the court.
"The book also features scenes in Africa, where I was on safaris several times, as well as scenes in Moscow, Russia, where I've also traveled," Dr. Zipes said. "I had adverse interactions with the KGB back in the 1980s when I was working to free some Jews who couldn’t get out of Russia. All of that is part of the novel. There is no question you put a lot of your own experiences into your writing."
Outside the realm of fiction, Dr. Zipes' career is also long and storied. His achievements include pioneering work in the development of the implantable cardioverter-defibrillator -- a device placed inside the body to deliver a shock that prevents death during a cardiac arrest -- as well as the most common pattern of "automatically delivered rapid ventricle pacing" used to prevent and terminate heart arrhythmias.
He is also a past chair of the American Board of Internal Medicine and past president of the Cardiac Electrophysiology Society, the Association of University Cardiologists, the Heart Rhythm Society and the American College of Cardiology. In 2001, he was named a "Sagamore of the Wabash," Indiana's highest civilian honor. In 2013, he was a recipient of the IU President's Medal of Excellence, among the highest honors an IU president can bestow, as well as the Gold Medal from the European Society of Cardiology.
In retirement, Dr. Zipes' passion for the novel only grows. Over the past few years, he has taken several creative writing courses at IU, as well as spent two summers in a row studying at the famed Iowa Writer's Workshop, living in student dorms at the University of Iowa. He's working on a third novel, inspired in part by the 1936 Olympics and the inauspicious maiden name of Hitler's illegitimately born father's mother, which was Schicklgruber.
"It’s a fascinating change," Dr. Zipes said. "In cardiology, my name is literally known throughout the world. In fiction, they say, 'Who the hell are you?' It's like being an intern again."