My Life as a Surgeon
THE career of surgery that I chose is one the oldest professions of man. Ancient Egyptian and Babylonian records tell of surgery as being performed as far back as four thousand years. And some archaeological finds indicate that surgery is even older than that.
In fact, I like to think that surgery is as old as man himself, for the Bible tells us at Genesis 2:21, 22: “God had a deep sleep fall upon the man and, while he was sleeping, he took one of his ribs and then closed up the flesh over its place. And Jehovah God proceeded to build the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman and to bring her to the man.” It seems noteworthy that God anesthetized Adam before operating on him, and afterward ‘sewed up’ the incision. And man-performed minor surgery goes back at least to the time of Abraham. On God’s command he had himself and all the males of his household circumcised.—Gen. 17:10-14, 22-27.
A leading American professor of surgery once stated: “The surgeon’s training is the most rigorous and demanding of all professions or occupations and his responsibilities are the heaviest.” What, then, caused me to choose this profession? My upbringing and the fact that the work promised to be as satisfying as it was challenging.
My father was a country doctor. He lived in a small town in Oklahoma and served the medical needs of farmers and others for many miles around. There were five boys in our family, and I was the eldest.
In his early days my father used a horse and buggy to make sick calls in the country. By the time he was using a Model-T Ford to visit his patients, I was accompanying him. In fact, even before I was twelve years old I was his part-time chauffeur, as well as his medical assistant, as it were.
As the years went by I was able to help him more and more in those days of kitchen-table operations. One memorable case was that of a farmer who had been kicked in the head by his mule and nearly scalped. His surgery was performed under a tree by my father, with me as his fascinated assistant. At times when a patient needed an anesthetic I was assigned to give him a few whiffs of chloroform while dad performed the operation. Today, of course, a number of better anesthetics are employed and operations are seldom done under trees.
Becoming a Surgeon
Upon completing high school I went to college. I chose what seemed to me to be the natural course to take, that of becoming a doctor. My father had never urged me to take up his profession, but he did not need to. His example, his kindness and compassionate goodness and helpfulness, as well as the great respect in which he was held, made me want to become a doctor also.
I started out with a two-year premedical basic science course at the University of Oklahoma and then continued with the regular four-year course at that university’s medical school. Studying the various medical subjects such as anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and histology was hard work, but I enjoyed it. Halfway through this school I received my bachelor of science degree, and from then on the course also included bedside experience with hospital patients and delivering babies at the homes of women too poor to afford regular hospital care.
Youthful frivolity surfaced at times despite the seriousness of medical education. After a home delivery of her baby, a new mother once heard another student and me use the word “placenta.” It was a nice-sounding word to her so she suggested it as a name for her baby girl. Without any explanation to her, we completed the official birth certificate accordingly. Our professors and the authorities soon had us “on the carpet,” however, and we had to apologize to the mother and help her think of another more acceptable name than “Placenta.”
After graduating I took a one-year internship at the Baltimore, Maryland, City Hospital. During this year I rotated from one speciality to another, such as general medicine, pediatrics, surgery, obstetrics and gynecology and psychiatry. This practical experience helped me to see just what was involved in these various fields. By the end of the year I chose surgery; to me it seemed to be the most interesting and challenging. From there I went to a hospital in a small town in Tennessee to continue my surgical training but shortly came down with tuberculosis, which I had probably contracted from tuberculous patients I had cared for in Baltimore. This sent me to a sanitarium for a few months and then back home to Oklahoma, until I recovered about a year later.
Then I was accepted as a surgical resident in the Santa Barbara, California, County Hospital. After about a year I took a position as a surgical associate with a group of some twenty-four physicians in private practice. Later I took a two-year leave of absence so that I could receive further training with Professor Owen H. Wangensteen, one of America’s foremost surgeons, at the University of Minnesota Hospitals. Finally, after some fourteen years of studying and training in premedical and medical schools, and specialized hospital training, along with practical experience, I realized my ambition to be a full-fledged general surgeon.
But then something happened that was to change both my outlook on life and my future as a surgeon. Closely related to it was the subject of blood transfusion and the issue made of it by the Christian witnesses of Jehovah.
The Blood-Transfusion Issue
My early years were influenced not only by my father as a physician; both my parents were also Jehovah’s witnesses—the only ones for many miles around. I grew up with great respect for the Bible, but with little real knowledge of it. This was no doubt partly due to the fact that my father was so occupied with his medical work. Also, the familiar family Bible study program featured by Jehovah’s witnesses was not emphasized then as it is now. So I left home for college, a country boy determined to be a doctor, strongly influenced by Scriptural principles that I did not really appreciate until several years later.
During the years I was in medical school, I saw my first blood transfusions—crude donor-to-patient procedures, somewhat heroic and usually unsuccessful. But World War II, with its terrible blood loss, gave the use of transfusions an impetus. The war also caused most doctors of my age to serve in the armed forces. I volunteered to serve as a surgeon in the Army but was turned down because of my having had tuberculosis. Later I tried to get into the Navy by not revealing my record of illness, but somehow they found out anyhow and so the Navy rejected me also. So I continued my career as a civilian surgeon.
Until my father died early in 1950, the big thing in my life was my surgical career. But his death and the funeral discourse I heard at the time gave me a jolt that made me think seriously about religion.
Somewhat to my embarrassment, my parents had always been ridiculed for their religion. I had always admired them for their stand for their beliefs, but after leaving home I had given it little thought. Now upon hearing the Bible truths about life and death and God’s kingdom as the hope for the future, old childhood memories were stirred. For his beliefs on such matters my father had been adjudged a religious fanatic by many of his old friends, and even insane by some. I knew him as an intelligent and educated man, artistic and sensitive to the needs of others. He was not one to accept ideas without study and investigation. His judgments on matters were well thought out. He was scrupulously honest. It was impossible for me to conceive of him as staking his life on something that had no merit. He was no religious hypocrite. I felt a deep need to examine critically his ideas about God and His purposes for man.
For the first time in my life I began a serious study of the Bible, primarily because my father had put so much confidence in it. I read it through in a month, along with all the Watch Tower Society publications on which I could lay hands. That convinced me that the Bible is God’s truth and that my father, as one of Jehovah’s witnesses, understood it correctly. I knew that I had to do something about it. So it was that at the 1950 Yankee Stadium assembly of Jehovah’s witnesses I symbolized by water baptism my dedication to do God’s will. Two of my brothers, moved by the same funeral talk seriously to examine the Bible, were baptized alongside of me.
Convinced as I was that the Bible was true, I readily accepted what it said about the sanctity of blood, even though I had actively participated in hundreds of blood transfusions and had seen the procedure develop with many technical refinements. To “abstain . . . from blood” now posed a real problem for me. (Acts 15:20, 29) I had a fine association with the Santa Barbara medical group, with the prospects of one day heading the surgical department. However, in those days “good” medicine and surgery dictated the use of blood as a necessary therapy; the Bible condemned its use as objectionable to God. In order to maintain my dedication to do God’s will in all matters I had no alternative, so I resigned.
But now what to do? I had a wife and two small children to support. More than that, I still had to pay off debts that I incurred during my surgical training. So I began looking for a community that was desperately in need of a doctor. In addition, the thought came to me, Could I not use my skill as a surgeon to aid Witnesses who were being denied surgery elsewhere because of their objection to transfusions?
I soon heard of the small lumber community of Loyalton in northern California. There was a new federally built hospital of about fifteen beds, well equipped except for a doctor. Their need was desperate; there was not a doctor in the entire county. By that time I was accustomed to being looked upon as something of a medico-religious oddity, but I reasoned that a community in such need would accept me. And they did.
For about four years I practiced general medicine and surgery there, at the same time getting a lot of practical experience as a house-to-house minister. My neighbors in the community could tell what business I was about by the type of bag I carried. My family and I enjoyed life there and found a number of people who were interested in regularly studying the Bible with us. Seven were baptized on one occasion.
The message that Jehovah’s witnesses preached was new to the small villages of that isolated area and we had many interesting experiences in our ministry. One well-known citizen awoke from an anesthetic, after I had operated on her, loudly proclaiming that she knew she was not dead because the dead “know not anything,” and even if she did die she would not end up in any hot fiery hell, as hell was merely the grave. In her semiconscious state she referred anyone with questions to me for further elaboration. Sometime after her recovery she too was baptized.
What caused me to leave Loyalton, where I was so favorably situated? A traveling representative of the Watchtower Society asked me if I would be willing to go where my services—that is, my services as a presiding overseer of a congregation of Jehovah’s witnesses—were needed more than in Loyalton. I told him that I would be glad to do so, and so it was that I moved to Lodi, California.
I had not been there six months, however, when I faced a confrontation with the doctors of the city over the blood-transfusion issue. An elderly Witness from out of town came to me for help. His condition was serious due to an abdominal tumor that would require a two-stage operation. However, before I could proceed with the simple first stage, I was opposed by the anesthesia department and representatives of the hospital staff. They informed me that unless the patient received blood he could not have the surgery he so desperately needed. My argument that on religious grounds the patient had specifically requested that he have no blood fell on deaf ears. The fact that the operation could be done quickly and without appreciable risk was given no consideration. Neither was his willingness to accept full responsibility for the consequences of his stand. He was ordered to leave the hospital.
Then followed meetings and hearings in which the ire of the medical staff, the hospital directors and trustees was heaped upon me. No explanations were accepted. I was summarily dismissed from the hospital surgical staff. The county, state and national medical societies all canceled my memberships. I was now ineligible to apply for staff membership in any accredited hospital in the United States.*
This was a shocking experience for one who had thought of the practice of medicine as a sort of compassionate humanitarianism. My prior experiences and relationships had been too idealistic, perhaps. Now I was being cursed as a fool and a murderer. Ironically, many of my most vociferous castigators had had experience as so-called medical missionaries. My special respect for doctors as men was practically lost.
Their parting message was to notify me that the board of directors had ruled that neither Jehovah’s witnesses nor anyone else not agreeable to blood transfusion on the order of his doctor could use the hospital. How inflexibly they applied this rule I was to find out in a matter of weeks. My mother came to visit us and, while in our home, suffered a heart attack. The hospital refused to admit her even though no surgery nor blood transfusion was involved. So I had to take her to another town where a hospital would accept her. The following day she died.
The Witness as a Patient
Again I was faced with the question, Where to turn? I soon heard of a small private hospital staffed by osteopaths in Stockton, some twelve miles from Lodi. I consulted with them, presented my qualifications and told them of my stand on blood transfusion. Yes, they said, I could use their facilities, for being osteopaths they were not bound by the medical society boycott. Incidentally, these facilities were greatly improved and enlarged over the years. And so it was that for the next fourteen years I practiced surgery in that hospital. From then on my patients more and more came to be Witnesses who had been denied help by other doctors and hospitals because of their Christian stand on blood.
During all those years and since then, I have not administered a single transfusion of blood. To my knowledge no patient has lost his life because of this, even though many had extensive surgical operations. It has been especially gratifying to me to see at firsthand evidence of the truthfulness of the Bible’s directives on blood. The medical profession itself has gradually come to appreciate that blood is not an innocuous lifesaver. Blood transfusion is now recognized as a dangerous procedure—as hazardous as any other organ transplant. Medical journals today have more to say about the perils of the procedure than the previously proclaimed benefits. Had I been routinely giving blood transfusions during the past twenty-three years of my practice, it seems quite likely that a number would have suffered from one of the now-recognized dangers of blood administration.
The Witnesses who came to me for surgery in Stockton, by and large, elicited my greatest respect and admiration. Because of their Christian scruples they were willing to risk their own lives or the lives of their loved ones. And the hospital staff thought very highly of them. They were recognized as a respectful and cooperative people, always considerate of the nurses and other attendants. In fact, they got such a reputation that the hospital administration did not go through the formality of first ascertaining their ability to pay before accepting them.
And not only those coming there for an operation were bearing witness by their exemplary conduct. There was a local Witness housewife who called every day at the hospital and visited those who were registered as Jehovah’s witnesses. Her visits were particularly appreciated, as the patients often came from far away and had no other visitors. Her friendliness and thoughtfulness in supplying the wishes and wants of these patients greatly impressed the hospital workers, as they were aware of the fact that she did not know any of them personally.
A Witness once came more than a thousand miles for me to do some major surgery. His nurse was curious as to why he had come all that distance. Did he know the surgeon personally? No, he did not. Had he heard of his reputation? Yes, he had heard of it, but the real reason why he came was that this surgeon worshiped and served the same God, Jehovah, as he did. In reporting this to me the nurse acknowledged that it was this common worship and service to Jehovah that explained Jehovah’s witnesses’ close relationship.
One Keeps on Learning
The American College of Surgeons likes to feature a fourteenth-century description of what a surgeon ought to be. It reads:
“The conditions necessary for the surgeon are four: First, he should be learned; second, he should be expert; third, he should be ingenious, and fourth, he should be able to adapt himself.
“Let the surgeon be bold in all sure things, and fearful in dangerous things; let him avoid all faulty treatments and practices. He ought to be gracious to the sick, considerate to his associates, cautious in his prognostications. Let him be modest, dignified, gentle, pitiful and merciful; not covetous nor an extortionist of money; but rather let his reward be according to his work, to the means of the patient, to the quality of the issue, and to his own dignity.”
No question about it, with such a high standard at which to aim there is room for improvement all the time; one needs to keep on learning. There is an avalanche of medical literature to be examined—some of it studied carefully—in order to keep up to date with progress. Medical meetings and seminars are also an important part of the necessary continuing education. One’s technical proficiency improves with experience and practice—a busy surgeon may perform several operations daily.
Success in any endeavor is rewarding and this is especially the case with a doctor. To be involved in a patient’s recovery from a serious illness is most gratifying. One learns from this, but, as is also true, one learns from one’s failures and mistakes. A surgeon’s mistake can be very costly, of course, so a good surgeon must be a careful one. But he must also be honest with himself and realize that mistakes cannot be entirely avoided. He, as well as his patients, can gain by these sobering experiences. Fortunately, in modern times the Code of Hammurabi is not in effect, for under it no surgeon was able to learn from his mistakes—he had his hands cut off as a penalty!
Good judgment is an essential mark of a good surgeon. According to a best-selling autobiography of a surgeon, making decisions or deciding on options is the most important part of a surgeon’s work. With all his application to study, his experience and his technical skill, a surgeon hopes to improve in this area. Many doctors emphasize the treating of the “whole man,” rather than isolating one’s interest to a certain diseased area. It is likely true that a successful surgeon will, of necessity, be one who has learned to view his patient as a whole. He will be one who considers, not only his patient’s diseased parts, but his feelings, his fears and his hopes and his conscience. One may successfully treat a disease—surgically or otherwise—but at the same moment inconsiderately destroy an individual by ignoring his conscience. A surgeon who forces unwanted treatment upon his patient may feel justified in doing so. His superior knowledge of disease may dictate the course. But his inability to consider the conscience of his patient is a defect in his makeup that affects his judgment. He has not treated the “whole man.”
Exploits of Modern Surgery
It is indeed remarkable what strides modern surgery has made! Far from being simply a profession in which diseased body parts are removed, much of the advance has been in the fields of reconstruction and correction. Amputated extremities can be reattached, new joints can be constructed, congenitally crippled hearts as well as feet can be rebuilt. New and improved technical methods make the control of bleeding easier. There are a number of sophisticated and refined surgical procedures that employ the laser beam. Too, surgeons are quick to credit the skills of their associates, the anesthesiologists and the members of their operating teams. Ingenious engineers have been involved in the development of new instruments and equipment.
Today much is also made of the transplanting of various organs—kidneys, hearts, lungs and livers. But, regarding these procedures, I am reminded of the comment that my father once made. I was home from medical school and performed a vasectomy on one of his patients who had asked to be sterilized. I was proud of my newly learned technique and asked my father what he thought of it. He replied: “The patient is no doubt pleased, but I wonder what the Creator thinks about it.” Because of what I have reason to believe is the Creator’s view of organ transplants, I have serious reservations as to their Scriptural propriety.
Yes, we cannot leave the Creator out of surgery. As Dr. Alexis Carrel so well notes in his book Man the Unknown, while “owing to the extreme ingeniousness and audacity of its methods, [modern surgery] has surpassed the most ambitious hopes of medicine of former times,” yet the fact remains that even “in the best hospital, . . . the healing of wounds depends, above all, on the efficiency of the adaptive functions” of the body. In other words, everything depends upon the powers of healing that the Creator has placed in the human body.
Activities as a Christian Minister
Remarkable as are the achievements of modern surgery, I agree, as a Christian minister as well as a surgeon, with Jesus Christ that spiritual values come ahead of material or physical ones. (Matt. 16:26) And what does that mean? That the Christian minister who can point people to the hope of everlasting life can do them more good than can any modern surgeon who, at the best, can help them to live only a few short years. That is the reason why I was willing to leave my very rewarding practice in Santa Barbara years ago. In addition, I am well aware that the day is near when the surgical profession will be unnecessary. Were I to start out now, I would not undertake the lengthy period of schooling and training needed to become a surgeon, but would choose to devote my time more exclusively to the Christian ministry.
Today I enjoy a rich and full life. My two children, both grown and married, are serving as Christian ministers also, one as a congregation elder and one as a missionary in a faraway land. My wife and I are now serving full time in the Christian ministry, members of the Watchtower Society’s headquarters staff, assisting fellow full-time ministers and others as their needs may be. All of which privileges, I must add, have also greatly benefited me, so that I can truly echo the words of the wise writer of Proverbs 10:22: “The blessing of Jehovah—that is what makes rich, and he adds no pain with it.”—Contributed.
Twelve years later, after several rejections in the interim, I was invited to make another application and was reinstated to full medical society membership.