It is early Sunday morning, and the clomping of a pair of cowboy boots is the only sound in the rooms of the surgical intensive care unit at Houston’s Hermann Hospital. Dr. James “Red” Duke pauses at the bedside of a leathery cowboy he sewed up the night before, hours after a nasty encounter with a bull’s hooves at the Houston rodeo. Duke’s torn and faded blue jeans are held up by a rattlesnake-skin belt. Behind gold wire-rimmed glasses a glint appears in his dark brown eyes. “Hey, Bud, let’s go bull ridin’,” he joshes, drawing a wan smile from the stoic victim. “Man, those guys are tough,” Duke mutters. “They’ve been getting stomped so often I don’t think they even feel pain anymore.”
Meet Red Duke, medical director of the helicopter ambulance service unit at Hermann Hospital, professor of surgery at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and a television producer’s dream. Part straight-talking cowboy, part dedicated surgeon, the lanky, auburn-haired 58-year-old (who addresses every man as “Bud” and every woman as “Babe”) is among the most popular doctors in media history. For two years Duke has delivered direct, sophisticated health advice on the PBS series Bodywatch. He is host of a phenomenally successful five-year-old, thrice weekly program, Texas Health Reports, made up of no-nonsense two-minute spots produced by the University of Texas Health Science Center and now running on local TV stations in 30 states. Says Bodywatch executive producer Christopher Gilbert: “Red is a man professionally respected at the top of his field who has the quirks of personality that draw people to him. I think he’s even more appreciated outside his own backyard than inside his home state.”
Sample: For a Texas Health Reports piece entitled “Horse Sense,” Duke stands outside the Houston Astrodome-Astrohall at the annual Livestock Show and Rodeo. “Last year,” he drawls, “we did a segment using a cowboy and his horse. Well, we’re doin’ a follow-up now because that cowboy managed to get himself kicked in the face by his horse. Pretty well busted his face up, too. He’s agreed to tell us how he learned his lesson.”
But don’t be fooled by Duke’s down-home deadpan. Though he prides himself on simple communication with patients, the doctor has a 36-page curriculum vitae and is one of the nation’s leading experts in “blunt trauma”—injuries caused by falls, auto accidents or blows (as opposed to penetrating wounds like gunshots or stabbings). “The public doesn’t understand the magnitude of trauma,” says Duke. “They’re scared to death of AIDS, but there are thousands being killed every year from trauma. It’s a major unrecognized epidemic.”
James Henry Duke’s missionary zeal developed out of a small-town life in Ennis, Texas. The eldest son of a gas company manager and his wife, he acquired the nickname Red because of his curly red locks. Admittedly a “sickly and artistic” child, he grew strong hunting and fishing in nearby Aquilla Creek, where he frequently ran across another redheaded kid, future country singer Willie Nelson. Duke graduated from Texas A&M, then served in Germany for two years as an Army tank commander before returning to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, where he married fellow student Betty Cowden. Then deciding that ministering to bodies was more to his interest, he enrolled in the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas and went on to pursue academic research at Columbia University in New York. Restless by nature, Duke uprooted his wife and four children in 1970 to accept a two-year post in surgery at Nangarhar University in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Though the couple later divorced, the Dukes still have a warm relationship. Upon his return Duke accepted a position in surgery at the University of Texas Medical School. Famous for his directness and honesty with his patients, Duke found his audience in 1982 when the university asked him to conduct the first Texas Health Reports broadcasts.
In a fitting coda that proves practicing good medicine is as much art as science, Dr. Duke will be the model for a new fall ABC series starring Dennis Weaver and called Buck James, about a country doctor in a big city. Still, you won’t find this country doctor hightailing it for Hollywood. Complaining that he is getting “overexposed,” Red Duke will be back in Texas, sounding his simple message: “Being sick is a real drag. But having a doctor who doesn’t care or doesn’t listen is worse.”