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A Tree Grows in Kos, Replanted in Houston, Texas

HOUSTON, TX – I took my first trip to Greece when I was 13. My mother was afraid of flying, so we sailed across the Atlantic on the Queen Frederica. I’m not sure that calmed her at all, but I had a blast. It was like a giant amusement park floating on glass. Endless activities, constant food, so many kids my age, so many handsome sailors…

We docked in Spain and Italy and, finally, Greece. I was ecstatic. The sky was bluer than the travel posters promised. The Parthenon was regal. The people were even louder and more passionate than my family at Sunday dinner. I loved the afternoon naps and evenings in the park enjoying free concerts and comedic performances. And then there were the islands.

My family is from Nisyros, a small island in the Dodecanese. The island chain capital is Rhodes, known for its medieval fortress, pistachios, and petaludes (butterlifes). Nisyros, on the other hand, was like an extended – no, a way overlong – Girl Scout camp out. No electricity. No indoor plumbing. No harbor. Our ferry dropped anchor out at sea. More handsome sailors hung a rope ladder over the side and led us down the rungs and into a rocking motorboat waiting to take us dockside, where we would have to climb up onto land. I expected my mother to refuse to descend the steps, but she was a trooper. I guess coming home after so many years away animated her in ways I could never have imagined.

Another island in the chain that we visited was Kos, birthplace of Hippocrates. My great uncle, Emmanuel Alexiades, lived on Kos, and his adopted home was a happy coincidence. Theio was a physician and, in his retirement, spent many hours at the Aesclepion, the temple ruins of the doctor-god Aesclepios, conducting informal tours. The official guides deferred to his age, his experience, and his charm. He was tall, maybe just 5’10”, but to me he was a giant. He had silky white hair and a handlebar mustache, and wore white three-piece suits, even in the dead of summer.

But it was those blue eyes, reflecting the Aegean Sea and sky, that held me as he told endless stories about his long medical career. We would sit in the Aesclepion or under the plane tree where Hippocrates taught, and I was transported to a mythologized past that has become history. Sometimes we drove up into the hills and the villagers would flock our taxi, kissing his hands and calling him “savior.” To him, though, it had been an honor and a privilege to serve them.

So it was particularly meaningful to me when the Hellenic Cultural Center of the Southwest and its member organizations (AHEPA Chapter 59, Macedonians of Greater Houston, Pancyprians, the HPST and Ladies Philoptochos Society) and the Greek Consulate in Houston collaborated to present a gift of a bust of Hippocrates and a cutting from his tree on Kos to the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School.

The original tree died centuries ago, but experts in the U.S. have produced the first DNA barcode of the Oriental plane that grows on the site and that Greeks believe to be its descendant. Cuttings from this 500-year-old tree have been presented as gifts to major medical institutions all over the world, including the National Library of Medicine near Washington DC (part of the National Institutes of Health – NIH) (http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-27190148). According to Georgios Papanikolaou, the Greek Consul, UTHealth is only the second medical school in the country to receive a cutting from the ancient tree and the first to have a bust bearing the official likeness of the father of medicine.

On April 23, during a ceremony at the UTHealth Medical School, officials planted a piece of the ancient tree, a gift from the Consulate of Greece in Houston, represented by Papanikolaou. The bronze bust of Hippocrates, crafted from the original cast preserved at and licensed by the Archaeological Receipt Fund of Greece by Athens artist Dimitrios Housakos, was presented by the Hellenic Cultural Center of the Southwest. The bust sits atop a marble pillar next to the tree in a landscaped area overlooking Webber Plaza, the entrance to the medical school. Both gifts symbolize Hippocrates’ teachings – the basic tenets and ideals upon which medical students are trained today.

“We are honored and grateful that our medical school will share this important piece of history with the birthplace of medicine,” Giuseppe Colasurdo, MD, president of UTHealth and dean of its medical school, said prior to the ceremonial tree planting. “I envision a day when our medical students will be able to learn and share medical knowledge beneath this tree, which holds such significance for our profession.

“Just as the Hippocratic school of thought served as the seed for modern-day medicine, this cutting from the ancient plane tree from the Island of Kos will grow to inspire and guide medical students through their training and into the noble, enduring practice of medicine,” Colasurdo said.

More than 100 guests attended the event, including many from the Greek American community in Houston and even a few who traveled from Greece. “By planting the tree here in this space, we create a link and a bridge between the past and the future, between the old medical school of Hippocrates and one of the most recognized health science centers in Texas,” Papanikolaou said.

Theodoros Voloyiannis, MD, FACS, FASCRS, who completed his fellowship at UTHealth and now serves on the volunteer faculty of the UTHealth Department of Surgery and on the surgical staff at Memorial Hermann Medical Group, was instrumental in working with Papanikolaou to secure the gifts on behalf of the Hellenic Cultural Center of the Southwest and its member organizations. Voloyiannis said, “I’m honored to welcome a branch of the Hippocratic Tree to UTHealth. As a member of the medical community and a graduate of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki who took the Hippocratic Oath in 1998, I feel that as the tree grows deep roots in the years to come, this will inspire the future doctors to use their ethical conscience and do what is morally right for their patients, as Hippocrates taught under the shade of the tree nearly 2,500 years ago.”

Yannis Remediakis, president of the Hellenic Cultural Center of the Southwest, said that as the tree grows, it would be a “dream come true” for new medical students to take the Oath of Hippocrates in front of the tree just as physicians did thousands of years ago on the island of Kos.

Nicholas Checkles, MD, a member of the center’s board of directors and chairman of the committee for the Hippocrates Tree ceremony, said the tree will inspire and serve as a reminder: “Do no harm. This has become the first rule of medicine and should remain the first, I think, for all time.”

Eva Valilis and Ioannis Liras, both students at UTHealth Medical School, said these precious gifts celebrate their Greek heritage. “It’s a point of pride that Hippocrates was the first to establish how sincere and sacred the relationship is between patient and physician,” said Valilis… “Having UTHealth bring a branch of the Hippocrates Tree here reinforces that” (https://www.uth.edu/media/story.htm?id=efe25a03-c075-4abb-8b80-a8793d412242).

Years after my first visit to Kos, my husband and I returned. “Theio Yiatro” administered the Hippocratic Oath to him under the plane tree. For every other conversation between them, I had to do consecutive translations. This time, the words spoke for themselves.

 

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