In 1982, President Reagan appointed Dr. C. Everett Koop to be the thirteenth Surgeon General of the United States. In November 2013, President Obama nominated Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy to become the nineteenth Surgeon General. The contrast between these two men speaks volumes about the politicization of this office and how this administration has cheapened it.
Before Dr. Koop became the US Surgeon General, he was already a giant in medicine. He was one of the founders of the field of pediatric surgery, serving as the surgeon-in-chief at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) for 35 years. He established the nation’s first neonatal intensive care unit at CHOP and founded the nation’s first training program in pediatric surgery, producing a generation of leaders in this field.
At the time that Dr. Koop decided to devote his career to the surgical care of children, nothing like this existed, so he needed to invent things extemporaneously. He commented in his memoir: “some of the surgical problems that landed on the operating table at Children’s had not even been named. Many of the operations that I had performed had never been done before.” His brilliance continues to be appreciated today as many of these operations which he pioneered, continue to be the standard of care for complicated problems in children. He performed groundbreaking procedures involving the separation of conjoined twins. He also developed procedures to address previously lethal problems in children such as mal-development of the esophagus (esophageal atresia) and ventriculo-peritoneal shunts for hydrocephalus (water on the brain).
Dr. Koop founded the Journal of Pediatric Surgery and was its first editor. He published hundreds of peer reviewed articles and wrote dozens of book chapters and text books on pediatric surgery. He was awarded every major honor in the field of surgery, and served in every leadership position in pediatric surgery.
Dr. Koop was certainly a larger than life figure and he is a hard act to follow. One could only hope that the latest appointee, Dr. Murthy, brings with him a degree of experience, expertise and compassion close to that of Dr. Koop. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
At just 37 years of age, Dr. Murthy is an infant in the world of medical experience. His exposure to clinical medicine consists of a 3 year residency (the minimum amount of training for any of the fields recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties), followed by 7 years as a hospitalist (a doctor who provides care to only hospitalized patients) in Boston.