First Place: “Zipper,” by Dr. John Baldwin

By Guest Contributor December 15, 2016 13:16

  Read more Unforgettable Animal Tales online.


Dr. John Baldwin examines a heart-surgery patient, 1978


By John N. Baldwin, MD 

It was April Fool’s Day in 1967, and the open-heart patient in Operating Room 6 at UCSF Medical Center was almost off bypass and home free when a nurse came into the room with a Western Union Telegram.

I had expected this. I was 34 years old, my draft board was back in New York and the doctor draft for Vietnam only let you go when you turned 35. The New Yorkers could not pass up an opportunity to take the youngest heart surgeon in California, who had left his home state for a better education.

“Greetings,” it read. “You will report to the Oakland Army Terminal on 1 June 1967 for induction into the US Army. Signed: Lyndon B. Johnson, President.”

Several people told me how to get into the Air Force or the U.S. Public Health Service and work on Indian reservations to avoid Nam. Instead, I took the counsel of several wise senior UCSF and Stanford surgeons: “Don’t back off from an opportunity to be a surgeon in a war. It will make you stronger, better, smarter, braver and forever proud of what you did.”

Shortly after that telegram, I was interviewed at the U.S. Army base in the Presidio and it turned out that there was an opening for a surgeon at Fort Ord, Monterey, home of the largest training facility on the West Coast.

“The only problem is that you are just a captain,” the colonel said, “but if you can handle the pressure, you will be the chief of surgery and most of the other doctors will outrank you.” I agreed, and in that year at Ord, I was swamped with returning Vietnam casualties.

About three weeks into my tour, the 30-year old wife of an infantry captain was a clinic patient and presented with a breast lump. I believed it probably was not malignant, but said, “This needs to come out and be biopsied.”

She replied, “I don’t want to insult you, but there is a doctor in Monterey named John Gratiot who has a superb reputation—I would like to go to him for this.”

“Absolutely,” I said, “I’ll make an appointment for you.”

I did exactly that, and forgot about it until three weeks later when the phone rang. It was Dr. Gratiot, crown-jewel surgeon of the Monterey Peninsula. “That nice lady had a benign fibroma,” he said. “I would like to meet you. Can you come to our home at 5 p.m. tomorrow?”

I arrived in my Army uniform and enjoyed encountering this man who had gone to Harvard Medical School, The New York Hospital for surgery (my place too) and had been the first genuine talented surgeon in 100 miles, especially during WWII when he was the only one left. His birthday and mine were eerily identical, and our views and ethics were similar.

Into the room came a gigantic dog, a male boxer. “This is Zipper,” Dr. John said. “He is 11 and on Monday we will have to put him to sleep, as he has a tumor under his front leg. He has been the best friend for all three of our kids, who are now teenagers.”

The dog came over to me and lay down under the coffee table. I gently felt the soft-ball-sized mass between the leg and chest; it moved nicely and was soft, covered with normal fur. I said, “Dr. John, I can fix this. Don’t put him down.”

He looked at me as if dumbstruck. “You can FIX this?!”

I replied, “Dr. John, there was a time in my career at UCSF working on early kidney transplant surgery that I had operated on more dogs than people!”

It was done. We operated on Zipper in 1968, and the tumor was a rare one: a hemangiopericytoma, completely excised. Zip went home the next day. I made house calls to his home every day for two weeks, and as dogs bounce back fast, he jumped up to lick me every time.

About visit number 10, Dr. Gratiot simply asked, “When you are out of the army in two years, would you come here and join me?”

It took me only twenty seconds to respond: “I will and I would love it.” He wrote on a scrap of paper: “When Dr. John Baldwin comes back from his Army service, he will join me in practice in Monterey.” We both signed it. I have a copy.

My career in Monterey was modestly wonderful and special, with super results and never even a hint of a malpractice suit despite difficult and dangerous operations each week over 25 years.

I owe it all to Zipper. A dog who needed an operation and who lived five more years after an intervention saved his life.

By Guest Contributor December 15, 2016 13:16
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