Saturday, November 24, 2007

Farewell, Jack

Yesterday I received a brief e-mail message from Donald Dew, a former Board member of Community General Hospital: “Jack died this morning,” he wrote. “As you know, he was a great man. I was privileged to know him well…”

“Jack” was John T. Prior, MD, for many years the Chairman of Pathology at Community General Hospital. He set a high standard for medical practice, he played an active role on the staff, and was famous for his droll humor and sharp wit.

In the 1970s, when I was new to the hospital world, I asked Dr. Prior why autopsies are important. “Patients die for one of two reasons,” he said wryly, “patient failure or doctor failure. We ought to know which.”[1]

A few years ago, when I met Eliot Lazar, MD, Vice President & Chief Medical Officer of the New York - Presbyterian Health Care System, he immediately called to mind “Community General’s excellent reputation in pathology.” Because Dr. Lazar did his residency in Syracuse, he rotated through Community General, and he remembered Dr. Prior’s pathology lab.

Dr. Prior wrote eloquently about his World War II experience as Captain in the Medical Battalion of the 10th Armored Division. He was at Bastogne on December 24, 1944. He selected a three-story home as an aid station for the wounded and dying soldiers in his care. Twenty-eight years after the experience, he wrote about that Christmas Eve in Bastogne:
I was holding over one hundred patients, of whom about thirty were very seriously injured litter patients. The patients who had head, chest, and abdominal wounds could only face certain slow death since there was no chance of surgical procedures – we had no surgical talent among us and there was not so much as a can of ether or a scalpel to be had in the city.
By chance, Jack was not killed when the aid station was bombed, then strafed, by a German plane, an incident portrayed in an episode of Band of Brothers, a 2001 ten-part television series based on the book of the same name by Stephen Ambrose. Although Dr. Prior is not depicted in the television episode, Renee Lemaire, his nurse, is. She died in the bombing, and Dr. Prior later wrote:
It seems that Renee had been in the kitchen as the bomb came down and she either dashed into, or was pushed into the cellar before the bomb hit. Ironically enough, all those in the kitchen were blown outdoors since one wall was all glass….Before our unit left Bastogne we dissected the hospital rubble and identified the majority of the bodies, including Renee Lemaire. I brought her remains to her parent encased in the white parachute she so dearly wanted [she wanted the silk for a wedding dress]. I also wrote…[a] commendation for her and forwarded it to our Commanding General…
Forty years later, Dr. Prior returned to Bastogne and erected a plaque in memory of Renee Lemarie.

I have written about Jack Prior before in What makes a good doctor, and Dr. Prior helps us remember. In his memory I have posted, below, his memories of WWII, The Night Before Christmas – Bastogne, 1944. I suggest you take a couple minutes to read it.

Dr. Prior slowed down in recent years, but his mind remained active. He lamented his physical maladies, and he treasured the monthly meetings he attended, along with other past presidents of the Onondaga County Medical Society. Medical papers are read at the meetings, and as Jack explained to me, “Everyone is expected to make a comment or ask a question after the paper is finished. Apparently, that means I’m not supposed to doze off.”

Dr. Prior served as President of the Medical Staff of Community General Hospital, he served on the its Board of Directors, and chaired its planning committee. He was on the faculty of SUNY Upstate Medical Center (now, Upstate Medical University). I am sure I am omitting many affiliations and accomplishments.

I was supposed to have lunch with Jack and Don Dew last Tuesday. But Jack was ill, Don said, and we thought we would be able to reschedule after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Farewell, Jack. As Don said, it has been a privilege knowing you.

[1] I quoted this remark in an earlier posting, but without attribution. See “Hospital mortality rates.”

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