As we prepared this special “Top Doctors” issue to go to press, the news reported the death of former surgeon general C. Everett koop, whom I had a chance to meet and photograph at his office at Dartmouth back in 1995 for an article on the future of medicine.
Looking back at that article made me aware of how much, and how little, has changed since then. And the intellectual and moral stature of Dr. Koop, larger than life — like a Biblical prophet, some said — reminded me that what American health care needs today might not be more law, but more vision.
For those who don’t recall, Dr. Koop was a study in contrasts, which may be why he is almost certainly the most famous person ever to serve as Surgeon General to the US. (Name the current office holder without Google and I’ll send you a complimentary “Spot the Newt” coffee mug.)
He was a graduate of Dartmouth College (in 1937) who became a pro-life intellectual hero of the Evangelical Christian movement and was appointed by Ronald Reagan in an era of conservative resurgence. But he felt his calling was not to ideology for its own sake, but to people and their well-being. Nothing un-Christian or un-conservative about this in concept, but the devil, they say, is in the details.
Dr. Koop donned the military-style surgeon general outfit (and wore it with flourish) just as the AIDS epidemic began its deadly reign. While some considered quarantines for gays and seriously debated whether mosquitoes could carry the HIV virus, Koop began a program of education that involved speaking frankly (and explicitly) on both
cause and prevention. He even produced the first comprehensive report on the subject, “Understanding AIDS,” and mailed it to every American home.
In March, a few days after Dr. Koop’s death, came a report of the first case of a child, born with HIV AIDS, having been cured by a regimen of drugs provided at birth — a tribute to a long, hard battle fought with vision and compassion not stymied by fear or judgment.
It was no coincidence that we chose this year’s Top Doctors issue to poll the physicians of the state on their thoughts and concerns about President Obama’s controversial new law, the Affordable Care Act. The battle for the future of our health care system will also be long and hard and emotional, but when in search of a healing vision, who better to consult than a doctor?
If you would like some perspective and at least a few still-unfulfilled prophecies from Dr. C. Everett Koop, our 1995 interview with him is available along with our Top Doctor feature (and list).