Celebs Make 'Superb Patients,' Says a Boston Surgeon—Including Kirk, Henry and David
Along with assorted diplomas and copies of The Practice of Cardiology and Gibbon’s Surgery of the Chest, Dr. W. Gerald Austen’s office has a framed photograph of John Wayne. It is inscribed: “Jerry. Thanks can mean a lot. It does here. Duke.” Nearby are autographed pictures of David Brinkley, Kirk Douglas and Henry Kissinger.
Austen, 50, is proud of his famous patients but harbors no illusions about why they come to him. As chief of surgical services at famed Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Edward D. Churchill Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, Austen says, “In a job like this and in a hospital as fine as this, it’s not hard to imagine why celebrities—and many other people—are directed to you.”
While not reluctant to refer to patients as “Henry,” “David” or “Kirk,” Austen minimizes his personal role in their treatment. A heart surgeon averaging three operations a week himself, he also oversees 49 other surgeons and 63 residents at Mass General. In John Wayne’s case, Austen cites Drs. Mortimer Buckley and Roman DeSanctis as the specialists in charge. “Wayne was exactly like he was on the screen,” Austen recalls. “When he was told he had to do such and so as a patient, he’d grit his teeth and do it.” The actor’s 1978 open-heart surgery to replace a deformed mitral valve was successful but he died 14 months later of an unrelated cancer.
Both Kissingers have been patients. Nancy was operated on for a stomach ulcer in 1976 by Austen and Dr. George Nardi. “Henry and I became quite good friends,” Austen says, and the former Secretary of State wrote on his photograph, “To a great surgeon and a fine man.” Austen later supervised a rigorous physical examination for Kissinger, and persuaded him to lose 40 pounds. Austen has also treated Henry’s mother and brother. “Every time I turn around,” the doctor says, smiling, “there’s a Kissinger.” Austen supervised hernia surgery for Brinkley—who was referred to him by the Kissingers—and arranged physicals for Kirk Douglas and Sen. Abraham Ribicoff and their wives.
Celebrities, Austen notes, generally make cooperative patients but are not bashful about demanding medical answers. That attitude pleases Austen. “If you invest $10,000,” he says, “you ask the broker questions. You should be much more interested in asking your doctor about an operation.”
Although surgeons can be standoffish, Austen has a reputation for friendly openness at MGH. Dr. Charles Sanders, the hospital’s general director, calls him “the ideal chief of surgical services. His standards are very, very high. Yet he is anything but a cold fish. He is one of the most caring people—of patients, colleagues and the whole environment.”
As a boy in Akron, Austen wanted to be an engineer, as was his father, a Goodyear vice-president. Gerald worshipped Einstein, excelled in science, and left prep school with seven letters in soccer, wrestling and tennis. At MIT, he earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering. But engineering, Austen remembers thinking, “didn’t encompass enough in helping people.” He enrolled at Harvard Medical School, joining elder brother Frank, now an immunologist on the faculty.
Austen spent four years as an intern and assistant resident at MGH, where he and a colleague built the hospital’s first heart-lung machine, which pumps and oxygenates a patient’s blood to facilitate open-heart surgery. He polished his cardiology skills at King’s College Hospital at the University of London and the National Heart Institute in Bethesda, Md., returning to MGH to stay in 1963. In 1969 he became chief of surgery.
Although tension on the job gives him an occasional off-duty migraine, Austen swims, plays tennis and is otherwise in good shape. He gave up smoking three years ago, as president of the American Heart Association—”I couldn’t very well tell people about the evils of smoking, then sneak into the men’s room to have a cigarette.”
Austen’s nonmedical interests center on wife Patricia, 43, a nurse, and their four children, ages 8 to 15. As a teaching physician, Austen gives the hospital all fees above a certain level, which Harvard will not divulge.
He advises busy patients “to learn to say no” to demands on their time if they want to avoid possible stress-related heart problems. Yet Austen ignores his own advice, working six 14-hour days a week. He has also held 32 visiting professorships, written or co-written 407 articles and served on the editorial boards of 10 medical journals. “If I could figure out a way to work less,” he says with a smile, “I would. This isn’t healthy.”