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Dr. Mona Blog: My Friend Dr. Koop

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Dr. Charles Everett Koop and Dr. Mona Khanna Dr. Charles Everett Koop and Dr. Mona Khanna
Dr. Charles Everett Koop's service Dr. Charles Everett Koop's service
Dr. Amy Lehman, Ken Lehman, Dr. Mona, and Dr. Koop. Dr. Amy Lehman, Ken Lehman, Dr. Mona, and Dr. Koop.
Dr. Charles Everett Koop and Dr. Mona Khanna Dr. Charles Everett Koop and Dr. Mona Khanna
CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

Twenty-three years ago, almost to the day, I met one of the most formidable characters I would ever encounter and one that has had a powerful influence in my life. His name was Dr. Charles Everett Koop. That's right, former U.S. Surgeon General Chick Koop.

Do you know who our current Surgeon General is? Everyone I've asked says no. Dr. Koop is the only one remembered by many. Some people remember the "lady with the condoms", but no one has forgotten the stately, stern, and severe visage of our country's 13th surgeon general. "Invisible" and "unmemorable" seem to characterize the others.

I recently attended Dr. Koop's funeral in Woodcock, VT, at the church where his son is pastor. After Dr. Koop's death, at the age of 96, his family obeyed his wishes to have a small, unassuming service for family and friends. Unfortunately, the event was held the weekend of a massive snowstorm where planes were delayed and grounded, so many who tried to attend, could not. Dr. Koop planned this funeral by himself in 2003; actually both he and his first wife, Betty, who died in 2007, had created living wills and planned their own funerals. He picked the hymns that made up most of the service and asked his good friend and caregiver to play the church organ. He was cremated, but his ashes didn't make it to the service. Dr. Koop passed away Feb. 25, 2013 a week after his kidneys failed completely after suffering from kidney failure for many months. His second wife, Cora, almost 20 years his junior and whom he married at 93, gently and patiently saw him through his last days, with frequent visitations from his immediate family and close friends.

There was another service. One that you would think might be more fitting for a man of such great stature. It took place at the church where Cora was formerly on staff and in the city of brotherly love, in Philadelphia, where Dr. Koop performed the groundbreaking operations and invented the surgical procedures that etched him a place in history as a surgical pioneer and giant. All of the living surgeon generals were invited to attend in uniform. Dr. Koop's friends gathered en masse and told stories of his medical greatness. I didn't go to that service because I already knew how great he was...I had read so much about him in the medical literature and beyond, including his 1991 autobiography titled, simply "Koop." And I was so deeply moved by the simple Vermont service that focused on his family - his children, grandchildren and great-children (to whom he was "Papa" and "Great-Papa"). They talked about how he brought back souvenirs from other countries, how everyone wanted to stop him and talk to him, and how he loved lobster and coffee ice cream. That service focused on his goodness.

I met Dr. Koop in the hot, sticky New York days of the summer of 1990. My grueling year of medical school clinicals had ended and I had some discretionary "elective" time. A summer fellowship program hosted by the International Radio & Television Society that was intended to expose college juniors and senior to the world of broadcasting through internships at media organizations in New York City and through interactions with broadcast executives finally allowed me entry after rules were "bent." Fifteen budding broadcasters-in-training moved to Manhattan for the summer and were given our assignments. "MacNeil/Lehrer Productions" with an address was written on my card. What? No NBC, CBS, ABC? MacNeil/Lehrer Productions is producing a documentary series on health care, I was told, and with my medical background it was a perfect fit! I tried to hide my disappointment and showed up at 8 a.m. the following Monday. I soon found out that the project was a multi-part series titled "C. Everett Koop, M.D." on health care that would air on PBS and that former Surgeon General Dr. Koop was doing the reporting and narrating. I couldn't believe it! This was less than a year after he had left office, so he was very much still a public giant. That summer, I threw myself into the business of logging tapes, interviewing contacts, doing research, setting up shoots. Even though I was based at the home office in New York, because it was a series to be aired on national television, shooting was taking place all over the country. So Dr. Koop was on the road much of the time. I cherished the times he came to the office to work. When he found out I was a medical student with a journalism degree, he was impressed and we hit it off in a New York minute. He took a special interest in me to make sure I was gaining as much research and policy knowledge as I could. He said he was glad I was taking an interest in using the media to impart health information, talked to me about where he thought the practice of medicine was going and asked what I wanted to specialize in. He guided my efforts at locating interview subjects. He told me much about his storied career in medicine. He loved telling the Ted Kennedy story about how the Senator had railed powerfully against him and tried to block his appointment as Surgeon General. But after Dr. Koop was in the office, he refused to allow conservative politics to guide his words and actions, and once the Senator realized that Dr. Koop wasn't going to blindly tow the Reagan Republican's political party line, they enjoyed a mutual respect for each other that led to many long walks in Washington, D.C. discussing health policy. They became great friends and Dr. Koop helped me land an internship in Sen. Kennedy's office to learn about legislative health policy. That summer ended too quickly and my I was sorry to say good bye to him. One of the last things he did was introduce me to a woman working as a production assistant. He thought she had potential to become a great producer and he said that perhaps she and I could work as a team to produce and report medical stories. We kept in touch for a while, but lost touch after I returned to full-time medicine for 14 subsequent years. On my last day, he was leaving for a shoot and his back was acting up. I offered to carry his briefcase. We rode the elevator down, lost in our own thoughts. As he was getting in his car, I handed him his suitcase. "One day, Mona," he said, "you'll be able to tell the story of how you carried the briefcase of the great Dr. Koop," he said. I laughed and promised to keep in touch; he said he hoped I would.

Throughout the years, I kept in touch with Dr. Koop intermittently by phone and letters, given our divergent paths. Most of his career was behind him, most of mine was ahead of me. He continued media work, working on patient education videos for Time/Life (and recommending me to the company) and then became a multimillionaire overnight with the launch of www.drkoop.com, one of the first high-profile health websites, before it went bankrupt. He continued to participate in numerous projects, but kept an office at the C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth Medical School. Dr. Koop reviewed my resume from time to time and made recommendations, asked about my career interests and provided thoughtful insight and ideas. He was involved in so many projects and the last time he came to Chicago a few years ago, he judged a case competition between business students to address the asthma epidemic estimated to affect 630,000 Chicagoans each year. While in Chicago, Dr. Koop was hosted by Lucy and Ken Lehman of Evanston, who were such warm and hospitable hosts that Dr. Koop extended his stay for several more days. They were thrilled as Dr. Koop regaled them with stories day after day after day. I was honored to be invited to join the fun around the table.

Dr. Koop hosted me at his home in Hanover, NH several times, where the wall of the staircase was covered with dozens of framed cartoons created when he was Surgeon General. The topics were light or serious, and most revolved around his staunch advocacy of anti-smoking efforts, abortion

rights, rights of handicapped and disabled children and his championship of the HIV cause where he refused to buckle to pressure from the conservative regime to blame homosexuals and maintain a low profile in discussing the relentless virus. He made some concessions, but never any that compromised the science of HIV, only those where his hands were tied politically. It was at his home that I noticed how his health was deteriorating. He complained to me of hypertension and a bad knee.

His vision was worsening, his hearing was worsening, and he was plagued with back pain from his old back injury that was constantly aggravated and exacerbated. For two of my visits, Cora, Dr. Koop and I sat at the kitchen table and talked and talked. His mind was as sharp as ever. We discussed the Obama Administration and the contemporary role of the Surgeon General. I told him that not only was he my mentor, but I aspired to become Surgeon General as well, and he said he would do whatever he could to help. We discussed specifically how he might be able to help and he was very accommodating.

At the last visit to his home, I had to speak louder and almost directly into his ear to be heard. He sat at the kitchen table eating oatmeal in a light blue bathrobe that he didn't notice was falling open. I was deeply saddened and made a mental note to come back sooner. It wasn't to be. When I called Cora to schedule a visit in November of 2012, it was too late. She told me that Dr. Koop was sleeping or drowsy about 20-hours a day and wouldn't be able to interact with me. She said he didn't wake up at all for his last few visitors. She told me it would be a waste of time to come. I knew I would never see him again.

I earlier implied that Dr. Koop is the most recognized surgeon general in U.S. history. He expected people to approach him, as they often did, or to ask if him if he knew he "looked like the former surgeon general Dr. Koop." But there is definitely a generation gap of that recognition best illustrated by the following story told to me when I flew into Lebanon, New Hampshire, to go to the service. That small facility in Lebanon is the closest airport to the Koop home and not far from Woodcock. For the last leg of the inbound trip, I flew on a tiny Cape Air six-seater. One of the friendly Cape Air staffers was interested that I was going to Dr. Koop's service. "I used to work at Bank of America in Hanover," he told me "and Dr. Koop came in all the time to withdraw $20 in cash now and then. One day we had a new 25-year-old teller working who didn't know who he was. The teller asked for ID. " Dr. Koop was dumbfounded. He stammered, then felt all of his pockets -- first his shirt pockets, then his pants pockets. No luck. He didn't have identification on him. FInally, the bank manager happened to look over and see what was going on and he rushed over. He explained to Dr. Koop that checking ID was protocol, but said "We know who you are, Dr. Koop, and we appreciate your business. Here you go." And he handed him the $20.

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