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Five physician heroes who influenced one man’s career

By William Hoffman

Atlanta—Clifton R. Cleaveland, MACP, paid tribute to five “physician-heroes” who inspired his commitment to the practice of medicine.

“Aristotle defined courage as the voluntary sustaining of moral purpose, irrespective of the dangers or circumstances,” Dr. Cleaveland told the audience gathered for his Nicholas E. Davies Award Scholarship lecture. “He believed that heroism grows out of a lifelong commitment to and practice of virtuous behavior. Thus the heroic person is always prepared to respond to unpredictable and rapidly evolving circumstances.”

At the Davies lecture, Dr. Cleaveland pays tribute to physicians who put patient care above their personal needs in difficult situations.

Here are the five physicians Dr. Cleaveland, a former College President, profiled in his speech.

  • Corydon M. Wassell, MD. Stationed on the Indian Ocean island of Java in the early days of World War II, the tall, angular, chain-smoking Dr. Wassell defied U.S. Navy orders to abandon his bedridden patients when Japanese forces overran the island in 1942.

    He arranged passage for some but remained at the jungle hospital with eight other patients, enduring air attacks until he could finagle a ride to the coast and get on a steamer bound for Australia. Dr. Wassell received the Navy Cross, was lauded in a fireside chat by President Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt and was later memorialized in the film, “The Story of Dr. Wassell,” starring Gary Cooper.

    “Dr. Wassell exuded an unshakeable confidence to his patients that he would see them safely through any and all difficulties,” Dr. Cleaveland said. Captivated by the movie at age 8, Dr. Cleaveland credited Dr. Wassell’s story with inspiring him to seek other physician heroes.

  • William Holmes Dyer, MD. Dr. Cleaveland said he had long believed that the remarkable story of Dr. Dyer, a black physician in World War I France, was fiction. But the public library in Dr. Dyer’s hometown of Lincoln, Ill., confirmed that the story was true.

    The grandson of a slave, Dr. Dyer impressed his town’s white community so much that they helped pay for his medical schooling. In 1918, he traveled with the all-black 92nd Infantry Division to France, where he endured demeaning treatment and racism while treating victims of the war and the influenza pandemic that followed.

    “Dr. Dyer remained devoted to the call to service that benefited his patients and his nation,” Dr. Cleaveland said. “America remained a work in progress.”

  • Woodrow Bryan Dodson, DO. Dr. Cleaveland pointed to Dr. Dodson as a “quieter” example of heroism. Dr. Dodson practiced medicine for more than 50 years in tiny Canton, Mo., a Mississippi River town with no pharmacy or hospital.

    Once, Dr. Cleaveland said, Dr. Dodson walked through a raging snowstorm across the locks and a dam that link Missouri and Illinois to deliver a baby in west central Illinois. “When summoned to provide care, Woodrow Dodson always responded, no matter the time, weather or risk,” Dr. Cleaveland said.

  • Lisa Weber, MD. Dr. Weber worked her way up from nurse’s aide to physician in Dr. Cleaveland’s hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn.

    After she diagnosed a 6’ 11” 24-year-old father of two with Marfan’s syndrome, she realized the patient need a heart transplant. Dr. Weber battled recalcitrant insurers to secure her patient’s surgery, even financing his wife’s trip to Houston to be at his bedside.

    “She confronted neither hostile armies nor blizzards,” Dr. Cleaveland said. “Rather, Dr. Weber challenged a complex, sluggish and unfeeling bureaucracy on her patient’s behalf and obtained vital care for him.”

  • Janusz Korczak, MD. Dr. Korczak founded a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw, Poland, that became a model for reform across Europe.

    Trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto after the German invasion in 1939, Dr. Korczak shepherded the orphanage’s children through successively smaller quarters, until the Nazis ordered the removal of all Jewish children from the ghetto. On the appointed day, Dr. Korczak calmly marched with his charges to the train station, and all were gassed the next day at Treblinka. Dr. Korczak refused repeated offers for his personal escape, Dr. Cleaveland noted.

All five of these physician-heroes identified and addressed a pressing patient need, Dr. Cleaveland explained. “Each believed there were alternatives to an intolerable status quo of suffering and despair,” he said. They exhibited remarkable stamina, confidence in their skills and inner strengths, and none sought publicity for their deeds.

“From them we learn and gain inspiration for our own lives,” he continued. “Emboldened by their examples, we can be ready to act when caring for patients demands of us an immediate, pragmatic, sustained—and sometimes perilous—response.

“Each of us has this capacity within us,” Dr. Cleaveland concluded. “Remember this. Our profession demands no less.”

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