By MARTY LEVINE
Fifty-year Pitt employee Henry Alexander almost didn’t get beyond his first year at Pitt.
Alexander, now a senior research specialist who has worked in labs in the School of Medicine’s Department of Critical Care Medicine since 1969, started here as a part-timer while a senior at Fifth Avenue High School. He had watched classmates above him get drafted for the Vietnam War. He was about to enlist himself, to gain more control over his own military experience, when a Pitt colleague convinced him to stay on. When his birth date was picked near the end of the draft lottery, he was relieved to be able to remain in his new job.
“I have always liked science,” Alexander says. As a kid, “it drove my parents crazy — I was always tearing things apart to see how they worked, rewiring the house. … When I got here, I applied the same thinking. I showed a knack for many of the things that were going on. It opened the door for me.”
Today he works in a crowded lab in the John G. Rangos Research Center next to Children’s Hospital in Lawrenceville. It specializes in modeling the results of head injuries and cardiac arrest in young children, which most often results from asphyxiation. It’s been Alexander’s job to come up with injury models — in larger mammals, decades ago, and for the last 15 years in 16- to 18-day-old rodents, whose brains have developed about as much as a 5-year-old child, so that the lab can study effective treatments.
When he first started — in the era of punch-card computer programming, he recalls — Alexander was aiding anesthesiologists with animal maintenance, caring for them after surgery. Since then he has moved to biochemical lab work (measuring glucose levels and blood through spectrophotometers, for instance) and to helping with cardiograms, encephalographs, venous lines, brain blood flow measures, speckle lasers and microscopy, looking close enough at the rat’s brain to see individual red blood cells flowing through blood vessels, testing whether medications are effective in improving the flow.
“That is one of the reasons I stuck around as long as I did — it is immensely stimulating,” he says. On his way home, or lying in bed at night, “a lightbulb goes off and you can’t wait to get back the next day and put it in action. It has always been that way for me.”
Around 1980, Alexander began working in the lab of Peter Safar, head of anesthesiology, who has become known as the father of CPR. He helped Safar’s office build a new lab inside the Hill Building on Fifth Avenue as a precursor to the Rangos facility. He helped run Safar’s simulated three-bed intensive care unit to test emergency methods of treating brain injuries, 24 hours a day for four days.
“A lot of time the investigator would come to me and say, ‘We’d like to do this. How do we do it?’ They gave me some of the baselines for what they were interested in,” and Alexander helped devise the model to simulate those conditions from a human to an animal model.
“A lot of MDs, they wouldn’t know how to use a broom, they wouldn’t know how to drive a nail,” he said — metaphorically speaking. “They’d drop it in my lap. They knew what they wanted. But how to physically do it?”
Alexander is thinking of retiring in January, but he’s still not sure. Right now he is helping to train his replacement. “I think about what I’m going to do with my days,” he says. “I have a couple of hobbies, but they don’t keep me that busy.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.
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