At every med school commencement, the freshly minted MDs are told to put their patients’ well being ahead of their own. In the real world of medical practice this usually means making the minor concession of not doing surgery or other invasive procedure when it is not of clear benefit to the patient. In the long run it makes little difference for doctors financially but has big benefits professionally and personally. As my mentor, Joe Ransohoff, the long time chief of neurosurgery at NYU would say, “You gotta live with yourself.”
Very few doctors take the commencement recommendation to the extreme of self sacrifice. Albert Schweitzer gave up a potential fortune to treat penniless Africans. Dr. James Carroll deliberately exposed himself to Yellow Fever to prove its transmission by mosquitoes. A small number of doctors got infected with HIV from needle sticks and died.
A long forgotten story of the ultimate price paid by a doctor for his patients was that of Lieutenant jg Jacques Saphier (pronounced Jack Sapphire), USN, who volunteered for the Marines and died on Guadalcanal. The citation for his silver medal reads “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity while attached to the Second Battalion, First Marines during action against a Japanese landing force of about 700 men which launched and attack at the mouth of the Teharu River, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands in the early morning of August 21, 1942. With cool courage and utter disregard for his own safety, Lieutenant Jacques C. Saphier proceeded to the front line and persisted in rendering medical aid to the wounded in the face of heavy and accurate Japanese fire. He gallantly gave up his life in the service of his country.”
What the citation didn’t say, and his still bereaved father told me two decades later, was that Dr. Saphier had only a white flag which he waved as he ran to protect him. This was the internationally recognized signal of a non-combatant medical person. The father was especially galled by what he felt was a lack of compliance with that rule by the enemy.
Dr. Saphier was among the best and the brightest of his generation, a man who graduated first in his class at Cornell Medical School in 1940. He was 27 when he died, leaving his wife, Dr. Laura Weber, a widow. The Marines under his care and he prevented the building of an air base on Guadalcanal which would have enabled the Japanese to cut off supply routes to our ally, Australia, from both India and the United States. The Australians and we should all be eternally grateful to those heroes.