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I meet my first wife


How Robert A Chase changed my life
Sherwin Nuland Surgeon
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So, I was going to go into internal medicine, and about three or four days after I started my clerkship on internal medicine… I'm sorry, on surgery, I entered the ward, which was a long corridor with rooms coming off it. One-bed and two-bed rooms, and one four-bed room down at the end. And way down by the four-bed room was the chief resident. And in medical programmes, surgical or paediatrics, the chief resident is God. He's in his… in surgery in his fifth of sixth year of training, and he knows everything he needs to know, and he runs the whole service. And this surgical resident, a fellow named Bob Chase, was down at the end.

He was from somewhere in New Hampshire. And he beckoned to me. I didn't think he had any idea who I was, because I'd only been on the service for three days. And when I got down to him, he said, listen, I need your help. One of the interns on one of the services, actually it was the private surgical service, had a family emergency, has gone for two weeks, we need someone to substitute for him. 'We need a medical student' to be what was called a sub-intern, he said, 'and I want you to do it'. And I said, 'Why me?' And he said, 'Because you're terrific. I've been watching you very carefully for these three days you've been on the service, and you're far and away our best student. You've got to go over there and do this'. Well, if I'm the best student, sure I'm going to go. So, I go over there, and the third-year resident, who runs the private service under the direction of Big Bob Chase, was a fellow named Jose Petineo, who was from Bogota, Colombia, and Jose had been to medical school in Colombia, came up to Yale and was a brilliant guy and a technically wonderful surgeon. In later years, he became the Chairman of the Department of Surgery at National University in Bogota, then the Dean, then he became the Minister of Health. You know, his career was great. He was a very charismatic guy and I got so thrilled by working with Jose. And by the time the two weeks were over, nothing would do but that I would be a surgeon.

 Fast-forward 20 years. Twenty years later, I'm on the search committee for the new Dean of the Yale Medical School. And Bob Chase, that Chief Resident, the New Hampshireman, is one of the two final candidates for Dean. He had gone out to Stanford, become chairman at Stanford, and he was a wonderful, kind, gentle guy. And everybody loved him. He made very important contributions to hand surgery. He's one of the two final candidates. And I loved Bob. He had brought me into surgery, and we were talking, actually in his hotel room, about the surgical service, what it was like. You know, he was asking questions about the school, because this was to be the Dean of the whole school.

And I said to him, you know, Bob, I haven't seen you in a long time, but you're the reason I'm in surgery. And he said, 'Yeah'. As if he knew, but somehow something about it didn't please him. I said, 'What's the matter?' I said, 'You know, you remember, you saw me and you told me how great I was, and that…' He said, 'Well of course, you know', he said, 'I had never laid eyes on you before that moment, didn't know who you were. I needed a warm body and I was desperate. So, I made this stuff up'. So, I became a surgeon based on a fairy story that Bob Chase had made up. But that was a lucky break, that was a lucky break. I loved the surgical residency.

There was a pyramid. People kept getting knocked off every year and not rehired. And finally, it came to two people at the end, and I was one of the two people. And so, I got to be Chief Resident. I wasn't doing any writing, I wasn't doing any intellectual work, I was just being a surgeon. A surgical residency, a surgical training programme, is one of those situations in which every day you wake up and you realise how much more you know than you knew the day before. This went on for almost six years. It was five and-a-half years for me to do that.

Sherwin Nuland (1930-2014) was an American surgeon and author who taught bioethics, the history of medicine, and medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine. He wrote the book How We Die which made The New York Times bestseller list and won the National Book Award. He also wrote about his own painful coming of age as a son of immigrants in Lost in America: A Journey with My Father. He used to write for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Time, and the New York Review of Books.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: New Hampshire, Bogota, Colombia, National University of Colombia, Stanford University, Robert A Chase, Jose Patiño

Duration: 4 minutes, 58 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2011

Date story went live: 13 September 2011