Doctors who deserve gratitude
Plenty of doctors have outsized influence
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Having spent an uncomfortable and annoying part of the last 20 months in hospital beds, doctors’ offices, urgent care facilities, and emergency rooms—and having allowed an uncomfortable cynicism to shape my outlook—I’ve decided over the last few days to try to steer a more positive course.
Who, I asked myself, were the doctors to whom I owed a lifelong debt of gratitude? Were there any who had changed my life’s course?
I couldn’t help thinking of Dr. H.W. Bender, the eye specialist in Waterloo, Iowa, who during the summer of 1945 mended and then reshaped my left eyeball. I had poked a stick through it while pretending to help my mother in the garden. Doctors watching the procedure worried I might lose sight in both eyes because of damage to the optic nerve. But Dr. Bender’s treatment preserved my vision and the course of my life. The Bender family, I discovered later, had a vast reputation in medical circles in the Midwest, including the University of Iowa hospital system.
A decade later, my life got another boost through the generous personal support for the Cono Christian School that came from Dr. Frederic Sloan. He and his brother were graduates of the then one-room schoolhouse. That tiny school was closed and moved in the early 1950s to Cono, and is still there. Ric became a gifted surgeon, then in the 1950s became the chief of surgeons for both Cedar Rapids hospitals. He ultimately had to leave his medical practice after some personal problems, but his support for Cono Christian School was enormous. I remember his handing my dad a check just before morning worship almost every Sunday. He also encouraged his colleagues in the medical profession to support Cono. Humanly speaking, there would have been no Cono school without Ric Sloan.
Dr. Robert Kyle was a similarly gifted neurosurgeon in eastern Iowa who, in spite of the complexity and sophistication of his specialty, always found time to stretch the thinking and interests of us young students. In the years before cancer cut his career short, he taught us to push the boundaries of “safe” practice. He intrigued us with his sense of adventure.
Nor will I ever forget the stern warning I got (I think it was in the early ’80s) from a pediatrician here in Black Mountain, N.C., Dr. John Wilson. My daughter Katrina had lacerated her scalp in a basketball skirmish.
While watching Dr. Wilson stitch things together, I was also leafing through an outdated waiting room magazine. The cover featured a focus on young doctors who had pocketed $100,000 or more in their first year of practice. “Put that magazine down,” Dr. Wilson barked at me. “It’s an embarrassment to my profession.”
Dr. Wilson was already known in the community as the doctor who for a month or two every year hung a sign on his office door to announce that “DR. WILSON IS GONE TO HELP THE CHILDREN IN CONGO.” I dropped the magazine on the floor and as a journalist have tried hard ever since to remember that financial success isn’t the only measure of life.
To say I’ve been influenced by Dr. Priscilla Strom for more than 70 years is an understatement. After early schooling in India, where she was born and raised, and at the boarding school in Iowa founded by my parents, she finished pre-med studies at Covenant College and her medical credentials at Emory University. She went next to serve as a missionary doctor in Bangladesh, and came back to become chief of staff at the major hospital in Gainesville, Ga., where she focuses now on breast cancer surgery.
I’ll never forget her answer some years ago when I asked quite directly, “What do you enjoy most about being a surgeon?” “I love Saturday nights at Grady Hospital,” she said, “when I get to help repair all the awful things that happen out there. I get to help fix so much that is broken.”
I had to ask Pris over dinner a few days ago whether my memory was correct. “Yes,” she said. “I remember that. Helping fix things that way is part of the gospel, isn’t it?”