C. Everett Koop, former US Surgeon General, passed away February 25 at age 96. Here’s how I remember him.
I was a school administrator when President Reagan nominated C. Everett Koop as Surgeon General for the United States. I recall Koop’s appearing in front of congressional committees and the intense questioning that he was subjected to. However, what struck me then and later was his Lincoln-esque, statue-like appearance and his mannerisms. He appeared to be a man living ahead of his time and yet holding values from an earlier time.
I say “ahead of his time” because as a surgeon in Philadelphia he performed groundbreaking surgical procedures on conjoined twins, invented techniques which today are commonly used for infant surgery, and saved the lives of countless children who otherwise might have been allowed to die. And I say “values from an earlier time” because he refused to leave prayer and the power of spirit out of his healing work both as a surgeon and as a policymaker. He was intelligent, and a risk taker, but it was his wisdom that gave his words meaning. He seemed professionally sure of himself, and yet his actions showed great love and compassion for his patients. And yes, he evened prayed at the bedsides of those to whom he administered medical and surgical care, much to the chagrin of many of his colleagues.
Because of Koop’s early efforts to explain the cause of the disease called AIDS to the public, I was able as superintendent of schools to help a community work through its fear in dealing with AIDS when the first teacher in the state was identified with the disease. Koop’s foresight and national public education programs helped parents and community leaders deal with a new (at that time) and dangerous disease.
Even as medical knowledge grew and became more dominant in overcoming disease and other health problems, Koop continued to support a role for prayer and spirituality in maintaining and restoring health. In answering a question during an interview, he commented, “…the earlier you begin to combine your faith and practice, the happier you will be because your failures and successes will make sense in light of God’s overall sovereignty.”
I’ve often thought about what the woman who founded my own faith tradition, Mary Baker Eddy, said about physicians like Koop. “Great respect is due the motives and philanthropy of the higher class of physicians.” (Science and Health, p. 151) Koop boldly embraced both medicine and spirituality when he was in charge of the nation’s health. This was unusual during a time when the medical faculty, including nurses, was cautioned not to discuss spirituality and prayer with patients – which sometimes continues to occur today. But Koop’s enlightened understanding of health care certainly played a major role in maintaining widespread public interest in alternative therapies, which today often include prayer and meditation.
Thank you, Dr. C. Everett Koop, for “stepping up to the plate” in treating the whole man.
Photo © GLOW IMAGES. Models used for illustrative purposes