I was born in Akron, Ohio, in 1931, during the Great Depression. My dad was a foreman at Firestone. I remember going with my mom to pick him up at the plant, and for two blocks, we'd see men living in the street with a fire burning inside old oil drums. Old felt hats and overcoats. It was a tough time.
We moved to Memphis in 1937 when I was six years old. Memphis had the biggest Firestone tire plant in the world on one floor. Growing up, we were your typical middle-class family, Presbyterians who went every week to Sunday School. I doubt my dad ever made more than $12,000 per year. My brother was three years older than me, and we shared a bedroom. I looked after him, and he looked after me.
When I was in the sixth grade, World War II came.
We moved to Fremont, Nebraska, and my dad ran a Firestone plant that made bombs. We came back to Memphis when I was in seventh grade, and I went to Central High School, which was the best high school there was. We had 385 students in my graduating class, and 85 percent of us went to college. Phenomenal.
My mom was a librarian, and I'm a reader. I love to read, probably because of her. Smart as a whip. She was a little, short lady, but there was no question who the boss was! She absolutely loved children.
I was president of my high school fraternity for two or three years. I played on the basketball team, but I wasn't that good. I played golf. I stayed in trouble about half the time.
Ever since I can remember, I was going to be a doctor. I don't remember ever not wanting to be that. I took Latin in high school because that's what you did if you wanted to be a doctor. I thought I wanted to be a neurosurgeon because we were somehow distantly related to Dr. Harvey Cushing, the father of neurosurgery. Well, I got to medical school and found out it wasn't all that wonderful — all they did was treat bad backs and brain tumors. I didn't want to deal with either of those things!
I did my pre-med work at University of Tennessee–Knoxville because I couldn't afford to go anywhere else, and I didn't fool around. I took every course I could possibly take because I had to get out of there, cost-wise. I did odd jobs — whatever I could do to make a little bit of money.
After two years, I came back to Memphis and entered medical school at UT–Memphis. The dean was O.W. Hyman. We called him "Pinky" because he was redheaded. He was the first dean of the medical school and finally became chancellor. I have served every chancellor who has ever been at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, all the way back to the early '50s.
I graduated from medical school when I was 23. My internship didn't start for another two months, so I went to Kingsport, Tennessee, and worked for a general practitioner/surgeon there. He had his own hospital — 35 or 40 beds. He was an interesting man. One of the hospital rooms was where I lived. It was a wonderful experience, and I learned a lot from the wisdom of an old man.
I did my one-year internship in Cook County Hospital, a 3,000-bed charity hospital in Chicago. I wanted to go to a big county hospital; that's what I believed in. As a rotating intern, you did a little bit of everything.
I knew I was going to be drafted into the army — every doctor was required to serve — but I didn't know when, so I went to Wise, Virginia, in 1956 to work at Miners Memorial Hospital, one of 10 hospitals built by the United Mine Workers Welfare and Retirement Fund. They were paying doctors $1,000 a month.
That's where I met the "head chick" I live with. Betty was a nurse at that hospital, and she's been putting up with me for 53 years now! We got married on May 4, 1957, and within four days, we were in Okinawa, where I was stationed in the Army as the doctor for all the people on the supply base.
Our first of three daughters was born there.
We returned to Memphis after two years, and I started my general surgery residency, which I finished in 1963. I joined the faculty at UT and taught surgery. At the same time, I worked to develop my practice. I loved doing both.
In 1967, Dr. David Hume — who was part of the first transplant team in Boston — came and gave a talk on kidney transplantation. I found it very interesting. Plus, when I was a resident at John Gaston Hospital, we had the only dialysis machine in the city. If you needed dialysis, you had to come to us. The machine looked like an old washing machine. So I'd been in the kidney business from that standpoint for quite a while.
I felt that our medical center needed a transplant program, and I wanted to develop it. I went to the chief of the department of surgery, Dr. Harwell Wilson. He said, "I don't have any money, but if you think you're big enough to do it, you can go do it." So I did.
I gathered up some people and started working on it. Our lab tech went to Los Angeles to learn how to tissue-type, as well as to Denver to learn to make a serum that would combat organ rejection. Others of us went to the dog lab and did kidney transplants.
We bought a horse for $72. We kept her on a farm in Shelby County. Her name was Hamburger — pronounced ahm-boo-shay. The name came from a trip two of us made to the First International Congress of Transplantation in New York. The keynote speaker was Professor Jean Hamburger from France. He had done 40 or 50 kidneys by then. So we're sitting down front, and the announcer introduces "Professor Jean Ahm-boo-shay." We looked at each other, "Who the hell is Jean Ahm-boo-shay? We're here to hear Hamburger!"
Anyway, we ground up donated spleens to make pure lymphocytes. We'd inject that into the horse, and she would make an antibody. In this way, we could "blindfold" lymphocytes, which are major players in a body rejecting a transplanted organ. We'd do tests, tweak, and test some more.
We did this for about a year and ended up with bottles of anti-lymphocyte serum to combat rejection. The 19th Century Club ladies provided the funds to buy a preservation machine so we could put a kidney on the machine, cool it, and keep it "alive."
Finally, in 1970, after three years of working on this, we were ready. In the meantime, the nephrology doctors had been building this library of people who were on dialysis and needed a kidney. Now we just needed a donor. We put the word out to the hospitals.
Leroy Hobson was chosen as the first kidney transplant recipient because he was the best tissue match. I'll never forget our conversation when we told him. He said, "Doctor, have you ever done this operation before?" I said, "No." He said, "Well, I trust you."
We did our first transplant — the first in Memphis — at The Regional Medical Center on April 9, 1970. I was 38 years old.
We stayed in the ICU for two days straight, sleeping there and eating there. We kept Leroy in the hospital forever, watching him every day, drawing blood every day. We charted everything. Leroy damned near rejected his kidney at one point, but we took care of that. Nine years later, Leroy died of pneumonia. His kidney was still working.
We did four kidney transplants that year, 11 the next, and then the program was off and running. It was the highlight of my career.
I retired in 2002. I was 71 years old and had had a quadruple bypass. I finally realized that this profession was starting to physically beat me up. But I had a great run; I love what I did. I operated on thousands of people. It was fun and challenging, interesting and rewarding. I've been truly blessed in my life.
The predominate feeling I had prior to doing the first kidney transplant in Memphis … was determination. I told the team, "We have to hit a homerun the first time." I was excited, yes, but we were putting our reputation on the line.
To transplant a kidney, you … make an incision along the groin line, push all the intestines and everything out of the way, dissect the artery and vein out, and get them under control. Then when you're ready, you cross-clamp the artery, cut a hole in it, sew it in, then do the same thing for the vein. Then the ureter is hanging there, and you fill the bladder with saline so you can find it. You make a little incision and sort of tunnel the ureter in between the muscle so that you don't get reflux — you don't want to squirt urine back up into the kidney. Pretty standard procedure.
During the first transplant, I was primarily concerned about … the artery is easy; the vein is pretty easy; but the ureter — the tube that transports urine from the kidney to the bladder — has its own blood supply. If it dies, you've got one hell of a mess on your hands.
I knew we were out of the woods … after two days.
After I knew the transplant had been a success … I don't know what I felt. I was satisfied. I don't believe I was smug, but I thought, "I did what I said I was going to do. I've done something."
By performing the first kidney transplant on a black man … I didn't really get any flack for transplanting into a black man, but I've had donors tell me that they don't want kidneys from anyone outside their race. I tell those people that I will not talk race. We've never, ever looked at age, race, sex, money — nothing.
My first paying job … was a paper route when I was 12 years old. I always wanted to work and earn money. I was a saver. I had a jar in my dresser drawer, and when I went to college, I had $1,000 in that jar.
My mother … was always the chaperone for our high school fraternity parties. We'd go down to Leonard's and get a barbecued shoulder, come back to our house, and Mom would supervise us making the sandwiches. When I moved away to college, a number of my friends would still go see her. Now, that doesn't mean she wouldn't take a broom and swat me with it if I needed it!
My father … was from Alabama, one of nine children. He finished high school. His penmanship was perfect. He was stern in many ways, but we'd go pheasant hunting, shoot tin cans in the river together. I got a sense of honesty and hard work from him, and that those two things will beat anything. I can outwork anybody, and I did.
I've always had … a temper.
When you do your best, but a patient still dies, you … don't let it defeat you.
The battle I get most tired of fighting … Nowadays, it's a sense of the patient's mistrust of the surgeon. That's one of the reasons I quit. Patients are becoming increasingly mistrustful that a doctor is just doing a procedure or prescribing a medication for the money. If I recommend that a patient have a procedure, it's because I believe he needs to have that procedure. Period. Then the insurance companies started telling us what we could and could not do. Malpractice insurance costs rose. It just wasn't as fun as it used to be.
One of my 10 commandments for being a doctor … A doctor who is worth anything will not have an unlisted telephone number. Do you have your name in the phone book? Well, I'm no better than you.
Most people may not realize … that we don't place the transplanted kidney where the original kidney was. We place it right along the groin line because kidneys are located in your back area, and that's a difficult — and unnecessary — place to get to.
Transplanting a kidney is … pretty easy. Transplanting a liver is a different story!
The biggest misperception that people have about surgeons … is that we're all arrogant. A good surgeon is confident. And who wouldn't prefer a surgeon who is?
The role God plays in a surgeon's life … There are certainly atheists in the foxholes and atheists in the operating room, but I'm not one of them.
My favorite medical sitcom … I watched House for a little bit, and that was way overblown. I really don't watch them.
The part of being a surgeon that requires the most stamina … Oh, your back will start hurting during a long operations, but you're so focused on what you're doing that you seldom realize just how much time has gone by.
My biggest vice is … chocolate. All of it.
My least favorite surgery … radical mastectomies. It's disfiguring, it's emotionally devastating, and I feel terrible for the women. Of all the operations I did, I was glad when I stopped doing these.
I'm not very good at … I don't suffer fools very well.
Most people don't know that I … am somewhat shy. I don't come across that way often, but I'm sometimes introverted. Now, if you get near me, I'll talk your arm and leg off! But I don't seek it out.
I pay a personal price when I … feel that I haven't done my very best.
If I could do one thing over … I'd try to be an even better father, doctor, and teacher.
My final 2 cents … A sense of humor will take you a long way. I've got a wife and children. I play golf. I'm just a human being. I'm not some sort of god off in the corner. Lots of people do a lot of things that are hard to do. I just happened to do surgery.