5. Medical School
The semester after I was accepted to medical school, I took 28 units of premed courses so I could qualify. Six units were at Los Angeles City College, a community college but which had a six unit Organic Chemistry class (The course at USC was two semesters of four units each). It was at night and I met quite a few other pre-meds in the class, some of whom ended up in my med-school class. Two were Bill and Ulla Fortune. Bill was a physical therapist who had been taking pre-med courses at night for years. Ulla was a girl from Sweden that Bill saw in the supermarket one day and followed home. Before long they were married. Ulla got bored during the day when Bill was working and she began to take pre-med classes at UCLA. She had her gymnasium diploma in Sweden, which was the equivalent of a bachelors degree. By the time we met at LACC, they had applied and were waiting for acceptance. Ulla was accepted everywhere she applied but Bill, because of his age of 36, was only accepted at George Washington U. Sort of the reverse of the typical version of bias in medical school acceptance.
We got along well and before long we were socializing together most of the time. By summer, Irene and I and Bill and Ulla would go to the beach in Laguna on weekends. We were sad to see them leave for Washington in August although there was one blessing as we took over their apartment in Hollywood. It was a very nice apartment with hardwood floors and a garage. They left pulling a trailer loaded with all their worldly possessions. Both later became orthopedic surgeons; Bill is now retired as a professor of orthopedic surgery at GW. He was a pioneer in total joint replacement surgery.
UPDATE: Bill died last week. He was in his 80s and had been ill for some time. He was a great guy. His brother was a well known opera singer.
In August, as I put in my one week summer camp for the Air National Guard, a disturbing rumor spread. The Soviets had put up the Berlin Wall and Kennedy, the president, was considering calling up the US military reserves.
I began medical school in September 1961 knowing that my Air Force National Guard unit was due to be called up October 1. We learned of the orders at summer camp, held at an Air force Hospital whose name I forget, which was near Travis AFB in northern California. The hospital was fairly busy and I got to work in the OR although I was at the bottom of the totem pole professionally. The word about the orders sort of drifted down after the Russians erected the Berlin Wall August 1. President Kennedy decided to activate the reserves and we were part of the reserves. At first, we were assured that there would be exemptions. Two of us were medical students and a number of the doctors were in residency training. This turned out to be largely false; the residents were able to carry on their residencies at night when off duty, but we, the two medical students were screwed. We both applied for exemption on the theory that we would be more valuable to the military as doctors. Finally, nine months later, as we about to be discharged, the approval of my exemption came through and I was allowed to accept a commission in the Army Reserve. That was June and I had long since given up on trying to stay in medical school. I had dropped out in October. It actually did me a favor although I wasn’t very happy about it at the time. The school held a place for me in the 1962 freshman class and I had enough months of active duty to fulfill my military obligation and entitle me to GI Bill benefits.
My wife was still in school, finishing her degree, while I was on active duty and my duty station was Van Nuys Airport so we were pretty lucky. We lived in an apartment in Hollywood from which we commuted, she to USC and me to Van Nuys Airport. The apartment we inherited from our friends, Bill and Ulla, who left to attend medical school in Washington, DC. I could ride with another guy in the National Guard unit so it worked out well. The apartment had a Murphy bed for overnight guests. It rotated into a closet and was a nice arrangement. This was put to use unexpectedly in the fall as my wife’s parent’s house burned to the ground in the Bel Air fire in November 1961. Fortunately, Irene’s mother was in Australia at the time and Irene was driving her mother’s car, a white 1957 Cheverolet convertible. Had it been in the garage, it would have been destroyed. Her father was home and had dropped off shirts at the laundry that morning. It was all he had left at the end of the day.
Our wedding presents were all gone and her father moved in with us for a few days, putting the Murphy bed to use, until he found a friend’s house to use. It was Jane Russell’s beach house in Malibu,so that winter we spent quite a bit of time on weekends there. She was a good friend of Irene’s parents and our wedding reception had been at her house only a few months earlier.
Anyway, I began medical school again with some advantages, namely a trial period of about three months to accustom me to the courses and exams. I think it was a significant advantage as I was first in my class all four years of medical school. When I began, I had the tuition for the first semester in hand but nothing else. By the second semester, I was told I had been granted a full scholarship for tuition. That continued until I graduated. My wife was now a first grade teacher in east LA and we lived on her salary that first three years. Once again, the year delay caused by the National Guard callup had allowed time for her to graduate. We were very lucky. Her school was near the medical school and LA County Hospital so we could drive together in the mornings. It was a bit of a trip from Hollywood, so, after the first year, we moved to Eagle Rock, a section of Pasadena closer to LA County.
The Eagle Rock house was bigger than the apartment and much more convenient. It was only slighter more expensive, $100 per month instead of $85/ month. It was located in a small private community that had once been a sort of resort. There was a steep driveway and a common parking lot at the top. The only house that faced the street, Oak Grove Drive, was the owner’s home. Our house was at the head of a steep flight of stone stairs, often patrolled at night by skunks. It had a large paneled living room with a fireplace. From the west windows you could see into the San Fernando valley quite a distance. Eagle Rock is located in the pass between Glendale and the Valley. There were two bedrooms, a kitchen with a picnic table, and a tiny dining room. In March 1965, we began to use the second bedroom for our son Mike who was born then. The house was very comfortable although coming home late at night required negotiating between skunks who were quite numerous in spite of the owner, John Wynn’s, efforts with a skunk box trap. Every trash day he would have a half dozen skunk corpses laid out for animal control people but they never seemed to run out of new skunks. When Mike was born, my wife gave up her teaching job but, by then, I could make some money by doing history and physical exams on preop patients at the Good Samaritan Hospital. We were called “externs” and it was all perfectly legal. We also did H&Ps on non surgical admissions and I found some interesting cases. One, a case of unrecognized thyrotoxicosis with rapid atrial fibrillation resulted in an indignant note from the attending doctor that I didn’t know what I was talking about. A few days later, I learned about diplomacy when a consultation was requested with George Griffith, the most prestigious cardiologist on the staff. He wrote a masterpiece of diplomacy confirming my diagnosis and refuting the attending doctor’s but with such courtesy that I don’t think the attending noticed. Her hyperthyroid condition was treated and her atrial fibrillation responded.
That was not the only interesting case we saw. A classmate did the preop H&P on John Wayne before his first cancer surgery. Wayne survived the surgery well and eventually died of cancer of the stomach, unrelated to that first surgery except by smoking.
We were, once my wife had quit her teaching job, the beneficiaries of $100 per month from my father and Irene’s parents. That helped us through the period after she quit teaching until I was an intern. That plus my earnings as an extern allowed us to get by quite well although we took no vacation and brewed our own beer for social occasions. In the fourth year of school, I had talked to several professors who had trained in prestigious institutions in the east. One had written to a friend at Mass General about me and recommended that I go back there for the fall semester. It would be much easier to be accepted if I had been familiar to the faculty as one more Harvard Medical School student. It was still quite unusual for a California student to be accepted at Mass General or Johns Hopkins, my two first choices.
In August, we loaded up the old Volkswagen bus and took a trip to Spokane to visit our old friends John and Sally Whittle. John was in the insurance business, with a degree from Penn State in insurance, and had been working his way up in Mutual of New York. We were hunting and fishing friends and had been in the Air National Guard together. He had been transferred around the country but had been in Spokane for several years. The scenery was gorgeous and Irene and Sally picked a big basket of blueberries to make jam. Unfortunately, the blueberries got overcooked but the rest of the visit was a pleasure. We would get together with John and Sally at various place in the country over the years until Sally was killed in a freak accident in a parking lot in upstate New York a few years ago.
We left Spokane and drove to the Montana state line where we were obliged to sleep in the car one night. The highway was still under construction six years after my first trip to Spokane in 1959 and was little advanced from its state the last time I saw it. We finally continued east swinging south to visit Custer Battlefield National Monument. Of course, the name has been changed to correspond to more recent sensitivities. I hope the exhibit hasn’t been changed. It was most impressive. We continued east and, about South Dakota, the old VW transmission began to complain. Irene was obliged to hold it in gear all the way to Chicago by putting her leg over the floor mounted shift lever.
We made it to Chicago and my father paid for the transmission repairs. We continued east, after the family visit, and joined friends in New York City. They accompanied us on a trip to Washington, DC where we met Jane Russell’s daughter at Mount Vernon. We visited Georgetown and saw the residence of Abe Fortas (this was during the Johnson administration), which took up one third of the house of the former owner of the Hope Diamond. We might have been poor but we traveled in exalted circles. We also visited our friends Bill and Ulla Fortune who were now interns at George Washington Hospital.
A side trip to Maine allowed a visit to cousins and we made several of these trips during our six months in Boston.