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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The passing of one of the great ones

It was almost like an afterthought. Just this little piece in the media, which told of the passing of one of the great men of medicine. C. Everett Koop died peacefully in his sleep yesterday, and was 96 years old. Now who was this man, really?

Well, he became known as the surgeon general of the United States, and I'd bet that you could not name any other surgeons general in recent (or remote) years. It is not a post which many aspire to, and typically, it leaves nothing to remember anyone by. It is not usually associated with any great, or traumatic events. And it would be easy to just be there, and get your job done, and get out.

That was not the case with Dr. Koop.

Now, a bit about his background. He was raised in medicine, during the era (my own father's era), when a physician could, and often did, whatever it took to deal with the big issues at hand. It was not the era of "that's not in my line of work." Now Dr Koop was trained as a surgeon, and he developed the specialty of pediatric surgery, and notably performed multiple surgeries for the very first time. It should be noted that his surgical practice was what he quietly did for many years, as well as training multiple fellows, who would go on to become professors around the world at various prestigious institutions. He was not trained specifically in public health. That all changed in 1981, when he was appointed, by Ronald Reagan, to the post of Deputy Assistant Director of Health. He then, in 1982, was appointed to the post of Surgeon General.

Now, in 1982, I was just starting out in medicine, after residency, and practicing in southern Ohio. And what a time it was for medicine! There were issues pressing down on all our practices, which were part of something bigger and grander, and were more than just colds and sprains. There was the AIDS epidemic, there were the other STDs, there was heart disease and cancer. But there was also the issues of medicare and rampant spending associated with taking care of the above named issues. And the population was aging, and Medicare was "going to have to reign in the cost of doing business." And so the DRG (diagnosis related group) was invented. Now, I can recall, in those days, that medicine was being practiced by a bunch of enthusiastic, energetic, and eager men and women, for whom no challenge was insurmountable.

It was into this mix that C. Everett Koop stepped in as Surgeon General of the United States. Now, as a man, he was a mixture of calm, almost serene skill, but he was also an orator. And it is this quality which propelled him to the forefront of medicine. He faced the issues of AIDS and rampant STDs with the courage, won by years of struggle. He advocated the teaching of sexual education, as the most effective tool against these epidemics. He strove for research, and for public health measures, and for international cooperation. All the while, he was a conservative Christian, whose life, outside the "office" was one of approachability and humility.

Now, I'll miss this great man of medicine, whom I had the good fortune to have met. And I'll bet that there are many out there who have likewise been touched by his greatness.

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