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William A. Nolen, M.D.


A few weeks before my father died, he said to my brother Billy, "I'm a doctor first, a writer second." I was surprised. As an aspiring writer myself, I knew how much writing meant to my father, and I admired his dedication. He wrote eight books in all, among them: A Surgeon's World, Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle, Surgeon Under the Knife, and Crisis Time.

But as I read The Making of a Surgeon again, and consider the man who wrote it, I see the truth of his statement to his son. I wonder how I ever could have thought otherwise.

It isn't just that Dad wrote about his profession. Writers must write about what they know. It's more than that. Simply put, he lived to take care of people; he was a "born doctor." Dr. William Nolen shouldered the burdens of many people and did so with a devotion that often went unremarked. He was tall and strong. There seemed no way this man could falter. He kept his vision clear. He possessed a friendly, easy manner that complemented the determination in his gait. Family, patients, colleagues, and friends relied on his strength and relaxed in his company. Anyone else having written an international bestseller might have thrown aside previous goals, previous career, previous life. Not Dad. He wasn't immune to the attractions of fame and money. But it was in Litchfield, Minnesota, a town of five thousand people in the middle of the midwestern prairie, that he resumed his real identity: "Doc Nolen."

Near the end of his life, Dad became discouraged about what he increasingly perceived as the shortcomings of the medical profession. Once I even heard him say that he wasn't sure he could encourage young men and women to pursue medical careers. He seemed tired and disillusioned then. Besieged with health problems, he couldn't keep up the grueling routine he had established for himself. I thought about all of the young men I had met (a great introduction to young doctors, being the daughter of William Nolen, M.D.)-men who chose medicine because of The Making of a Surgeon. Dad gave urgency to their idealism by stating the truth as he knew it. He always had been able to push past disillusionment with his considerable wit, wisdom, and honesty.

I remember the times he would take us to the hospital when he made his rounds. Or on an emergency visit to a farm. Helping the sick and injured had been his mission in life, his driving force. Glamour and money were merely accidental and not at all necessary to him.

Dad died young, barely fifty-eight, at the same age and from the same disease (genetic coronary heart disease) as his own father. My grandfather had died suddenly. But Dad endured two bypasses and continued to work with constant pain for the last three years of his life. As he wrote in Surgeon Under the Knife, my father didn't like being a patient. He was used to being in charge.

The day before he died at the University of Minnesota Hospital, I told him that he had been offered another book contract. His proposal for a book on the changing face of American medicine had been accepted by a publisher. Dad nodded weakly. It wasn't writing a new book that he would miss most dearly.

He was lying down while his doctors conferred about what to do next-another bypass? a transplant? Dad turned to me, noticed my hand was bandaged. I'd cut my palm at work the day before, a deep slice, requiring stitches. Dad had always performed the honor of fixing his kids in the past.

"Jody, let me see it," he said.

I held out my hand. He studied the workmanship, the wound so tightly sewn.

I had never had to take care of anything, not really, not with Dad around. My father was a doctor, a healer, a caretaker. He was also gifted with words. These are the words he used to express how he felt about the life he'd chosen.

The details of surgical apprenticeship have changed over the years. Certain procedures, taught as standard medical practice when my father learned his profession, are no longer performed. The spirit behind his story remains strong and inspiring. The practice of medicine-like life itself-grows, changes, and endures.

Jody Nolen, from her foreword to The Making of a Surgeon

Titles by William A. Nolen, M.D.
The Making of a Surgeon

 


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