On a recent afternoon, he spoke at his Washington home about his slower-paced life now and about keeping active by reading, walking, traveling and playing golf.
Tell me about yourself.
I am 70. I retired two years ago, but I stopped operating 18 months before that, which was a big thing for me. My whole life has been surgery; then all of sudden it was over. It was an appropriate time to stop surgery and retire. I never had a question about that. But it was a shock.
I had had a very responsible job. I was involved in educating the students in surgery. I had my own surgical practice. I was in charge of a major group of surgeons. I was in charge of the hospital surgery group. Then I retired, and the next day I was no longer any of these things. I was just a guy. My life being a surgeon was over, and that was hard to handle.
So what did you do?
When I was a medical student, I spent two months working in a clinic in the mountains of Haiti. Then a year later I spent two months in Honduras working in a surgical clinic. I said to myself [that] I wanted to do this [again], but the fact of the matter is, I could never do it after that, because you get busy, you get married, you have children, you have this wonderful job. I thought [eventually] I would get back to that and, in fact, that is what I did do. I was appointed to the board of an organization called Partners in Surgery. We arrange surgical teams to go down to Guatemala and provide care for rural people and indigenous people. My job is to organize the surgical teams. I look at that as bookends. First Haiti/Honduras as one bookend and Guatemala at the end of my active medical career. And I am very happy I have done that. I can have an impact. That was important.
How did you know when it was time to stop?
I did vascular surgery, which is demanding technically. The operations can be long. You are dealing with very old patients. You have more than your share of complications. I was very proud of my surgical expertise 10 years ago. [But more recently] I thought, “This is more than I want to handle now.” In other words, I just knew I didn’t want to do it anymore.
A lot of my friends my age who I grew up with professionally say the same things. Even if they are not retired, they don’t do the tough cases that they used to do. As a surgeon, I used to love to do the tough cases. It was a real challenge. At the end, I didn’t want to do that anymore.
Why? Was your focus off? Was your stamina less?
All of the above. I don’t think I lost any of my skills by any stretch of imagination, but I did not have the patience to get in the middle of a very difficult case. Whereas 10 years before, I’d say I was really looking forward to this.
What do you think is the optimum age of a doctor?
I will give you a range. When you get out of residency — and the American system has the best-trained surgeons in the world, and I’m not just saying that because I am an American-trained surgeon — you have all this experience, but you are young and new at it. I think in fairness it takes about 10 years where you could say to yourself, “I have seen it all. I’ve done it all and nothing can throw me.” From that time on — that would put me at about 45 years old and to the end — I never felt like I was inadequate.
Do you do things to stay involved in medicine?
The other thing that hit me when I retired that I think will be interesting to your readers is that I was afraid of losing my knowledge of medicine. I go to conferences, I do some reading. But things will come up, and I should know that — I’ve known that all my life — but I don’t know it anymore. It is almost fear that I am losing information that is second nature to me. I don’t want to lose it. Next year I will be working with medical students at the Uniformed Services University, helping out with anatomy. I will probably end up knowing more anatomy than I did when I was practicing. You learn anatomy from a different perspective when you are a surgeon. It is very practical. You know what you are doing and where it is. When you study anatomy, you learn everything that goes into [the human body].
Tell me about Guatemala.
I don’t operate in Guatemala. I could have done that. It was a hard decision. It had been a while since I had operated. I had a good career, and I don’t want to make a fool of myself. I think you have to draw the line. I quit when my skills were good, and I don’t want do something five years from now when my skills are not as good and be ashamed of myself.
What impact did the shooting of President Reagan have on your life and career?
I wasn’t supposed to be involved in trauma. I trained at GW, then I spent three years in the Army at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center], and when I went back to GW, I was supposed to do surgery. The chairman of surgery who hired me said, “Oh, by the way, fix that trauma thing down there in the ER. It is a mess.”
I spent one month at the shock-trauma unit [of the University of Maryland in Baltimore]. What I learned there, I imposed that system on GW.
I worked very hard to get the trauma program going. I came in for every trauma, even though I wasn’t on call, just to make sure everyone was doing it right. You don’t know how bad the system was in the 1970s. There was no 911. There were no trained ambulances. There was nothing. There weren’t emergency-room doctors. Doctors and PAs [physician assistants] were coming back from Vietnam: “Hey, fellas, we can tell you how to take care of trauma patients; we did it in Vietnam.” All of a sudden, everything converged: In the ’70s there was absolutely nothing, and in the ’80s it became something. [GWU’s emergency room] was a well-oiled machine by the time Reagan came in. We had three traumas that day. There was Reagan, [Reagan press secretary James] Brady and the Secret Service guy [Timothy] McCarthy. We handled it very well, brilliantly.
Were you working on adrenaline that day?
People ask me that all the time. I wasn’t overwhelmed. There was the president on a gurney. Things moved very quickly because we have protocol. People have assignments. Do this. Do that. It went very quickly, and [the head of thoracic surgery, Benjamin] Aaron, came down to operate on the president.
This is the most famous moment in your career. How did it influence your life?
It gave me a lot of exposure that allowed me to go on to become chairman of surgery. I was chairman for 18 years. That was a pinnacle of my career.
What do you do to stay healthy?
I exercise a lot. I play a little golf. I walk — I don’t run anymore — and I do weights. I do resistance training with the weights.
How do you feel about aging?
I do grand rounds once a week. I teach students. I see my friends. It is funny going down there because I used to be chairman and now I am just a guy doing things. I enjoyed being there. I like being in a hospital.
I have this morbid idea: If you’re 70, you can count on having about 20 years, according to the tables. There are two 10-year intervals. The first 10 years, from 70 to 80, you are in good health and you can do what you want. Then from 80 to 90 you get what I call the dwindles. You sort of dwindle down a bit. I am not looking forward to — in fact, I even hate thinking about it — a retirement community or an assisted-living program.
This happened to my parents. They held onto things because every little step they made was losing something. If you had your own house, then you move to an apartment, which is part of a retirement community. Then you can’t handle that anymore so you go to assisted living, and before you know it, you are in a nursing home.
They are going to have to carry me out of this house.
Do you feel old?
No, I don’t feel old. One thing my friends and I say is [that] we did not think we would look this way or feel this way at the age of 70. I didn’t think I would look this way at 70, because our concept of aging goes back to 50 years ago. I came from a workingman’s blue-collar background. My father was a milkman. We lived in a two-family house. But the people at 70 were old. But we aren’t old. My friends, we aren’t old. We are more conscious of our health. We exercise. I have always belonged to a gym. We watch what we eat. I think that is the secret of it all.
Hambleton is a Washington-based freelance writer and documentary filmmaker who writes frequently for The Post.