My reflections on Dr. J. Willis Hurst should begin with 2 acknowledgments. First, I am very honored to be asked to write this piece about a man who served as a mentor, adviser, and supporter to me for the past 30 years. Second, I borrowed the title for my reflections from my good friend Wayne Alexander. When Wayne assumed the chairmanship of the Emory University Department of Medicine, Dr. Hurst inquired as to how he could continue to effectively contribute to the department. Wayne responded that Dr. Hurst would be the most help by “just being Willis.” This article is about my reflections on what it meant for Dr. Hurst to “just be Willis.” It is not written to remind you of his many outstanding accomplishments, such as the following: being selected by Dr. Paul Dudley White to be 1 of his final 2 cardiology fellows; assuming the chairmanship of the Department of Medicine at Emory University at age 35 and remaining chairman for 30 years; being chosen by President Lyndon Johnson as his personal cardiologist and becoming the president’s close friend; being selected as the president of the American Heart Association; and giving birth to the most widely read, authoritative textbook on heart disease and one that continues to bear his name.
Instead, in this article I focus on the more private side of this esteemed public figure. It is about a man who awakened in the early morning hours to allow himself time to think and plan in silence. Dr. Hurst believed that for a person to reach his or her full potential, he or she must allow moments of solitude and silence, uninterrupted by the disruptions of daily life. “Being Willis” meant being annoyed by the seemingly constant screeching of cell phones and pagers. “Being Willis” provoked him to expound the fact that these interruptions were not conducive to good medical care, because they hinder logical thought progression and divert the physician’s attention from the patient.
“Being Willis” also meant being the first faculty physician rounding in the hospital each day. These early rounds were not visits to patients’ rooms but rather visits to the nursing stations. In discussions with the nurses, Willis gained insight into the demeanor, cooperativeness, and commitment of his house officers. These visits alerted him to a house officer’s inadequate documentation or a lack of clarity in thought processes. “Being Willis” meant proceeding from these early morning rounds to “morning report,” beginning at 6:45 am . Demanding punctuality from a tardy house officer, with the curt reminder that arriving late was disrespecting and abusing others’ “time,” was just “being Willis.” To Willis, tardiness reflected a lack of discipline that he abhorred. These morning reports provided Willis the opportunity to share the excitement of learning with young physicians. Willis truly enjoyed learning, and he prodded others to learn. He did not insist that they learn facts but that they learn to teach themselves and appreciate the joy of that accomplishment. He stressed to his house staff that “remembering is not the same as thinking. It is nice to memorize, but one must be able to process and use the facts that are memorized.”
The folklore of Grady Hospital provides us with a good example of Willis’s expectations of his house staff and his devotion to his patients, regardless of their status in life. As the story goes, Willis is rounding with the house staff and becomes particularly concerned and perplexed by a very ill homeless person. He stipulates that the residents must follow the man closely and obtain some stat laboratory data. A couple of hours later, he calls the house staff’s office and asks for the results of the laboratory data. The resident who answers the phone states that he has not checked on the data, because he was too busy and didn’t have the time. Dr. Hurst asks if the resident is aware of whom he is talking to. The resident says “no” and is informed that the caller is Willis Hurst. The resident immediately asks if Dr. Hurst knows to whom he is speaking. When Dr. Hurst replies “no,” the resident says “good” and hurriedly hangs up, never to be identified by Dr. Hurst.
“Being Willis” meant that, as he progressed through his career, he was steadfast in adhering to this morning routine. His activities during the remainder of the day changed as did his position, his responsibilities, and his obligations. These activities included directing and overseeing a department of medicine, editing his textbook on heart disease, traveling on behalf of the American Heart Association, presenting distinguished lectureship throughout the world, attending to a United States president, and, most important, being a beloved husband and father. Needless to say, Willis fulfilled these responsibilities in a disciplined and tireless manner. “Being Willis,” he always found time to write. Some of his colleagues would laughingly say that “being Willis” meant that he had written more than most of us had read. His writings stretched far beyond medical manuscripts to medical history, to remembrances of his time with President Johnson, even to short stories and novels.
As the years marched by, the essence of “being Willis” became more fully defined. First, there was an increasing emphasis on the dictum that being a physician meant that one treated not only the disease but the person with the disease. Second, it became apparent that “being Willis” meant that he welcomed change and demonstrated his creativity in responding to change. Finally, “being Willis” meant that Dr. Hurst often urged others to persist in their efforts to expand their medical knowledge, while not ignoring opportunities to further their general knowledge.
The physical stature of Willis also changed through the years. In his early and middle career, he was a “John Wayne” type of character, being a big man with a bigger presence. He patrolled the hospital hallways trailed by his posse of house officers. In his late years, he became a gentle giant, a man dependent on a motorized wheelchair to move about, a man hindered by, but not disabled by, his multiple infirmities. He ceased teaching at about age 88, not out of a lack of enthusiasm but because his deafness prevented adequate communication.
Because each of us, to some degree, is a product of all those we have encountered in life, I am certain that those of us who were friends and colleagues of Willis Hurst will occasionally catch ourselves “just being Willis.”
The analogy to John Wayne brings to mind a notation engraved on the Alamo that I will paraphrase as an appropriate end to this memorial: “Be silent, friends; here a hero died. He blazed a trail for others.” And, I might add, by “just being Willis.”