In Celebration of the Life of John H. Updegrove, M.D.

Father’s realize certain things as they get older: unless you are a fireman or a high school teacher, your grandparents may never really understand what you do for a living. Few children ever appreciate the degree of skill you bring to your trade or profession, and needless to say, your average spouse is likely to wonder whether anyone that speaks kindly of her husband is really talking about the same person that sometimes forgets to take out the garbage. 

That was never a problem in my family, or at least perhaps less so than is often the case. One of my earliest memories is being asked one question over and over again: “whether I was going to be a doctor, just like my father and grandfather.” If the person asking the question was old enough, they might add, “and your great-grandfather, too.  He delivered me, you know.”

What may not be obvious today is that the legacy of almost 70 years of medical practice in Easton by my father’s father and grandfather weighed heavily on him when he returned to practice medicine in Easton in 1954. In many ways that legacy shaped who he became, although he could have avoided that baggage if he had wished. In fact, he received several impressive offers at the end of his training – one was to practice with the most eminent heart surgeon in the nation at that time. But he never had any doubt about what he wanted to do, which was to return to practice medicine in the community where he grew up, where his friends and neighbors turned to his family for healing.
For a long time Dad never really believed that “Dr. John” could ever fill the revered place that “Dr. Harvey” held in the eyes of his patients. I hope Dad realized with time that he did all of that, and much more.
It should perhaps not surprise you then that my brother and sister and I always felt the same way about him – it seemed impossible that we could ever measure up to his example. But we were also determined to try.
Living up to Dad’s reputation was an odd sort of challenge. It didn’t require becoming president of the United States or building great buildings. But in its own way, it was a more difficult row to hoe – at the most basic level, it meant demonstrating the same selfless humility and awareness of humanity that came naturally to him, and which emanated from him every day. 
When I became a father and thought how to convey this legacy to our daughter Nora, I phrased it this way: “Above all else, always do the right thing.” That might have puzzled my father a bit, because it would never have occurred to him that there could be any other option. 
I think Dad’s long-time friend and colleague at PRoJeCT, Danny Cohen, expressed it best in a quote you may have read in the Express. He called it Dad’s “overwhelmingly decency.”   I’m sure that those words would have embarrassed Dad. But they would also have reassured him that he had at least approached the impossible standards he set for himself.
Those standards were high indeed. Throughout much of his later life he slept poorly, getting up to read for a few hours every night. When I would ask him what kept him awake, he’d mention an insignificant comment he had made decades ago that in retrospect seemed insensitive to him, or some task that he felt he had not performed as well for his family as he now wished. Things that no one else now remembers, but which represented a failure in his eyes to live up to his own ideals.
Of course to us, and to so many who knew him over the years, Dad simply walked on water. With time, each of my siblings and I had the chance to witness first hand what others saw in him. Throughout his career, he made rounds twice a day, seeing all of his patients in Easton Hospital every morning and evening. From time to time, one or the other of us tagged along. At every bedside he would listen patiently to whatever concerns a patient might have for as long as they wished to share them. 
Before an operation and during a difficult recovery, his visits always began and ended the same way – with a gentle hand on the patient’s shoulder and reassuring words. And they always ended with a promise to be back soon – an invaluable assurance that they were not alone, and that he would be there for them. 
Before he left the operating room, Dad always called the waiting family, and also the referring physician, to tell each of them as soon as possible how the procedure had gone. Before the days of Medicare and pervasive insurance, clergy, other physicians and their families, college students, and many others never received a bill.
Dad was unabashedly a physician of the old school in other ways as well. He always wore a white lab coat and a tie, because he believed that a patient facing surgery needed to feel confident that they were in good hands. He explained it this way in an article he wrote for the surgical residents that he helped train throughout his career:
While an appendectomy…is not a really significant event in your experience, it is unique in the patient’s. He or she wants the physician to be someone special, someone who is a cut above the usual person, someone who is capable of performing a procedure the patient fears, doesn’t understand and is being forced to accept. You must do all you possibly can do to convince the patient he or she is in the proper hands. This is why your receptionist and nurse must be understanding, your office attractive and immaculate, and your dress appropriate to the role you are assuming. You must dress as a professional, not as an office worker in informal garb. Clothes do make the physician look like a physician.
Of course, times have changed in many ways, and ties and lab coats in hospitals are now hard to find. But my father’s career began when there were fewer than a dozen drugs that could make a difference to a patient’s health, and before almost any of the technology that we take for granted today had been invented. It is easy to forget that until the Second World War, the most important role that a physician could play was simply to provide reassurance and information to a patient and her family, and also to know when intervention with the crude tools then available could do more harm than good. 
By the time Dad retired, the role of the physician had become Balkanized, divided up among multiple practitioners in diverse specialties that together shared the Doctor-patient relationship in small pieces. And ever more tests and machines came to separate the physician from the patient. Even doctors with a traditional view, and thankfully there are many, found it harder to establish the same rapport and provide the same support for their patients. Dad felt that something important had been lost along the way, and he was right. 
I think that many others in the medical profession feel the same way. I browsed through the comments that have been left in Dad’s Guest Book on line, many of which were left by surgical residents, nurses and Candy Stripers, some of whom remembered him from interactions now more than forty years past. Here are a few examples:
On Memorial Day in 1983, Dr. Updegrove saved my life.
He was a great surgeon and a smiling, affable man.
He was such an outstanding doctor, friend, and person.
All of the wonderful things that have been written about him are so very true. A kind, ethical and warm-hearted gentleman, and one terrific surgeon.
As another comment reflected, “He was a great surgeon and teacher,” and he will also be remembered for his leadership, his mentoring, and his teaching at Easton Hospital, where he served terms as both the Chief of Surgery and as the head of the surgical residency program, duties that he took very seriously. He firmly believed that hosting residency programs was essential to maintaining a top notch hospital, and also welcomed the opportunity to pass on his skills and values to class after class of new surgeons. Despite his overcrowded schedule, he felt that it was important that he personally continue to conduct clinical research, and authored several journal articles while in practice.
When Dad retired, an annual prize was set up at Easton hospital in his honor to recognize the best research paper presented by a surgical resident. The day when the papers are read and the award given has been institutionalized as “Updegrove Research Day.”  
Dad’s dedication to Easton hospital and the local – as well as the global – community were demonstrated in other ways as well. He helped to raise millions of dollars for Easton Hospital, for the Weller Center, which teaches health skills to young people, and for PRoJeCT, which provides support and teaches life skills to people in need and at risk of all ages. PRoJeCT’s mission was especially dear to him, and he served as its President and then as a board member for many years. 
This was not unusual, as he became a board member, and usually president, of almost every one of the many non-profit organizations with which he was affiliated throughout his career.  Indeed, many who attended the wake last night told me how he had recruited – dragooned might sometimes have been a more appropriate word – them to serve on the board of one or another of the organization’s whose goals he strongly supported.
At the height of the Viet Nam war, Dad traveled to that troubled country as a volunteer physician treating civilians. He landed in Saigon the night before the Tet Offensive began, and was trapped there for a week before serving in woefully under-resourced hospitals in the village of My Tho, and later in Da Nang. Besides conducting non-stop surgery for the wounded, he saw diseases unfamiliar to him at home – cholera, leprosy, and bubonic plague. More than once the places in which he slept were endangered, or under actual attack.
As you know, Dad was the consummate people person. He had a smile and a welcoming word for everyone he met, and he was always happy to meet and talk to someone new wherever he might be. To everyone, he showed the same regard and the same genuine level of interest in who they were, and what was important to them. And always, the goodness and concern that were in his heart shone through. Here are a few more comments from the Guest Book:
I was blessed to have met such a wonderful man.
I worked at Northampton Country Club as a kid through high school and college. Dr. Updegrove was one of those members that the employees genuinely liked because he was truly such a nice guy. He took a real interest in what our plans were and wanted to make sure we all had plans to go to college.  Crazy that after 20 years I can still remember his bag slot–281 I believe!
His true compassion & caring ways made him the legacy that will always be remembered.
Such a selfless and kind man.
Our entire Lebanese community in Easton, had great respect and admiration for him, as he was always there for us, in our time of need, and we considered him family. They simply don’t make men and doctors, like him, anymore….he will never be forgotten, in this family….
A very generous man, committed to righting many wrongs in this community.
Of course, Dad had a great sense of humor and was also known as a trickster, for which he was especially notorious among the nurses. I expect that many of you remember saying, or hearing someone else say, “Oh, Doctor Updegrove!” when one gambit or other came to light.

That sense of humor was gentle – well, mostly gentle, on which more in a moment – and often expressed at his own expense. One story he enjoyed telling throughout his life related to an impossibly crude rabbit trap I set up in our backyard when I was about six years old. In total, it comprised a piece of heavy lead pipe to which I had attached a length of clothesline. The rope ended in a large loop, and inside that loop I carefully laid, of course, a carrot. Presumably (at least to me), an unsuspecting rabbit would drag the loop shut around a leg as it hopped away after consuming the bait.
Each morning, I would run to a window to see whether the trap had worked. It may not surprise you that it never did. That is, until one morning when I saw that the pipe had been dragged to a corner of the yard, with the clothesline extending around the corner of the house and out of sight. Of course, I ran outside in my pajamas, only to find that all that I had caught was a stuffed rabbit borrowed from my sister’s bed by you know who. My father was almost incontinent with glee at the complete success of his ploy.
Now fast forward to a few months ago, to a time when my father had finally given up a long and unsuccessful campaign to rid his backyard of the last very determined and ravenous groundhog that annually consumed most of his tomatoes.
Hearing that Dad was preparing to cede the field of battle to his nemesis, Kathy and I brought a life-size plaster groundhog along with us on a visit, and suggested to my father that he should try setting up his Have-a Heart trap one last time. You can guess the rest, but the point of the story is that Dad was even more gleeful that I had waited a full fifty years to turn the tables, and that it had taken him so completely by surprise.
I would be very remiss if I did not also speak of Dad’s dedication to his family. Although for most of his career he worked fifty weeks a year, I always felt lucky to have a father who spent so much time with his children. True, any Saturday adventure had to fit in between morning and evening rounds. But despite all of the demands of his practice, we spent innumerable days together, fishing and skiing, hiking and swimming. Whatever time was not spent with patients was spent with his family. Other than a few fishing trips with his friends and far too few rounds of golf, it is hard for me to remember any time Dad spent just on himself.
There was one person, though, to whom his dedication was absolute, and that was his often long-suffering wife of sixty years. Later in his career, Dad invited two other surgeons to join him as partners. But until I was in high school, there was no one to really cover for him. Indeed, every third week and weekend, it was Dad’s turn to cover all surgical emergencies that might arise, day or night, weekday, weekend or holiday. Time after time, just as Mom was putting dinner on the table, the phone would ring and Dad would fly out the door. Of course, the tasks of managing a household and three young children did not. 
Sometimes when Dad was on call, we would not see him for two or three days on end. No wonder then that Mom might often feel, with some justification, as if Dad’s patients came first. I think that this was largely because of the stress Dad felt in relation to establishing a practice that could pay the bills and living up to the example of his father. As evidence of this hypothesis I offer the night my mother awoke to find Dad holding the end of their bed up in the air. I doubt he was the first newly-minted physician to have a nightmare about treating a patient going into shock, but he may have been the first to act out his anxieties in quite this fashion.
But as Dad became more confident in his practice, and especially after he retired, Mom increasingly became the center of his universe, and the bedrock upon which his life was based. As much as he loved his children and adored his grandchildren, it was his Ruby that he could not live without. His devotion to her, and his love for her, was total and unconditional. If it is possible for love to survive from beyond the grave, I am certain that his love for her has accomplished that feat.
It is so very difficult to say goodbye to a man like this. But what a privilege to have known him, and also to celebrate his life here today. On behalf of my family, I thank you all for joining us.
See also:
August 25, 2010 Editorial from the Easton-Times
August 21, 2010 Obituary from the Easton-Times
Guest Book comments

Comments (5)

  1. My condolences to you and your family.  What a wonderful eulogy to a truly exceptional man.  Even though our paths never crossed, I feel, through your writing, that I know your dad.  Indeed, a celebration of a complete and truly good man.

    Yours sincerely


  2. My condolences for your loss. Thanks for sharing this — it is an inspirational tribute and a wonderful life story. You drew such an intimate and clear picture of your father that I almost feel like I knew him myself. I share your sense of loss, but I also deeply appreciate the legacy he gave you. Indeed, I too feel that I stand on the shoulders of giants, and I pray that I also will measure up to the heritage I’ve been given.

    — Alan

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