A great man died this past week. Dr. J. Willis Hurst passed away on Oct. 1 at 90-years-old. Dr. Hurst was chair of Medicine at Emory University for 30 years and a teacher of Emory students for 61 years. His accolades are many, his obituary is expansive, and his eulogies extolled his greatness. I would like to add to these accolades on a personal level. As I do this, I know that thousands, if not tens of thousands, could do the same. Dr. Hurst touched many lives, including those of ACC governors past and present, as well as several ACC presidents.
For me, his mentorship and friendship extended over many years. I met Dr. Hurst when he was visiting professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. I had the privilege of introducing him at grand rounds and then being with him at a social event. During that event, he mentioned he would have an intern from Mississippi the upcoming year. Since I was the only one applying, I felt that I had received a summons to be a Grady Hospital intern. It was a great year (in retrospect), with many morning reports before the Chief. During that year, however, I received another summons, this time from the US Navy – the last "doctor draft" got me.
Years later, while practicing internal medicine at Ochsner Clinic, I felt the need for something different. Despite the several elapsed years since my internship and suspecting he would not remember me, I nevertheless called Dr. Hurst for advice. He responded to my call and issued another summons that forever changed my life. The next year I found myself chief resident and cardiology fellow at Emory. During Emory training, I learned immensely from Dr. Hurst, as well as from Drs. Logue, King, Douglas, Lutz, and many other outstanding staff. Dr. Hurst was a brilliant clinician and lecturer and certainly imparted much medical knowledge. However, what I most took away from him was his edict that caring for the patient always comes first. I recall vividly the day he made the lame to walk. A friend from his hometown was unable to walk and was admitted to the great cardiologist with this definitely non-heart problem. After a few moments alone with her, the door opened and they walked arm in arm down the hallway. The house staff was waiting in the hallway and he winked at us as they passed. She had major emotional problems and Dr. Hurst started her cure by listening and by advising.
In the guest book of the Atlanta funeral home, many, and in fact most, comment on the personal touch that this great man had for them and the influence he had on their lives. One shared the memory that when she was a pediatric patient and Dr. Hurst was her doctor, he left Atlanta for Washington to take care of another patient, President Johnson. She tearfully wondered to her parents why Dr. Hurst would leave her since she was his favorite patient. During ACC.10 in Atlanta, I visited Dr. Hurst in his retirement apartment. His advice to me: "work as long as you can." He was still excited, then at nearly 90 years of age, to be receiving former students and to be teaching present Emory students. These students were still coming on a regular basis to his apartment to hear his lectures and to touch the hem of his garment.
These days we are all faced with ever increasing demands on our time, but the passing of Dr. Hurst is a reminder of the impact one person can have on our careers and on our lives. Most everyone can probably think back on their lives and identify one person who served as a mentor. I encourage everyone to take an example from Dr. Hurst; spend quality time with your young colleagues, return that phone call from a former resident, take a moment to talk to that potential intern. To quote ACC President-Elect William Zoghbi: “[Mentorship] is very special. It brings about strong bonds between individuals and will help shape our future leaders.”
Hail to the Chief!
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