If you figure around 750 surgical cases a year for the two men over a span of 35 years, then Drs. Paul Grmoljez and John Cook probably operated on more than 50,000 people in this area before their retirement.
Perhaps as important was their building and mentoring the outstanding general surgery programs at Billings Clinic (Paul) and St. Vincent Healthcare (John).
I had lunch with the two to get their take on their seminal roles. Both are engaging, witty guys who frequently fish together and had clearly discussed several of the subjects I raised.
Both Paul and John were the first college graduates in their families, and both came from “reduced circumstances.” They both scrabbled to get through college and med school.
John trained in surgery at UCLA under the great William Longmire. “He was a quiet, kind man, who taught us never to yell at the people who are trying to help us.” Paul trained with C. Rollins Hanlon at St. Louis University, and he agreed that these role models resonated with their own values of duty and dignity.
Paul was one of only four surgeons when he joined Billings Clinic, and they did everything. “We did chest and vascular and everything else, all while these fields were rapidly evolving.”
John sees Billings as a unique opportunity for surgeons. “You can come here and have a tertiary care practice — a strong regional medical community that has all the specialties. You can do all the big surgical cases you want to, but you don’t have endure big-city hassles.”
Did they see surgery as a yoke, a burden of care? “I am a worrier,” said Paul. “I couldn’t enjoy an evening off or a vacation if someone wasn’t doing well. But I didn’t see it as a yoke, but rather an expected part of the job.”
Do they carry ghosts? “Of course we do,” said John. “We all have cases where we feel we let our patients and ourselves down. But it is a measure of caring that we do have ghosts. But you can’t let them prevent you from doing your best for the next patient.”
How about advice to new surgeons? “Be a resource,” said Paul. “We all need help. I always asked for help. Make yourself useful to other surgeons and doctors. It builds relationships and improves patient care.”
I expressed my concern about the competition between the two hospital systems in Billings — duplication of services, fortunes spent on advertising. Neither were concerned.
John: “I’m 74, and I want to know that if something happens to me or my friends, there are systems pushed to be their best because they have to be.”
One theme recurred in our conversation, especially when I asked them about their nurturing of younger partners.
Paul: “Surgery is a special bond. We learn and grow from each other. We also share the belief that every person, no matter what their circumstance or their wealth or how bad they smell, deserves the very best of us at all times.”
John: “You can preach professionalism all you want. It’s what they see that the younger surgeons believe. I felt like I should show them.”
It was a delightful visit with two quietly great men, men who have left this community and their shops in great shape.
That’s a challenge for all of us. Will our workplace, our profession, our colleagues, be better for our having played a role?
These two guys deserve all the fish they can catch.