Beginning the operation to fuse an ankle at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the orthopedic surgeon grabbed a brush and started scrubbing his patient’s foot. His nurses rushed to take over the task, but Dr. Hampar Kelikian admonished: “Jesus Christ washed feet, didn’t he?” In a supposedly cold-hearted medical field, Kelikian is world-renowned for his maverick compassion as well as for decades of pioneering on the deformities of the foot and hand. The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery called his latest monograph on the subject “an instant classic,” and he still performs 10 operations a week. “His hands are steadier than many young doctors’,” marvels one nurse. Kelikian is 80.
“The mechanical part of surgery is like carpentry,” he tells residents, who have trouble keeping up with him. “Anyone can learn that. The important thing is to be able to suffer with the patient, to see if they are in pain.” Kelikian has taught orthopedics at Northwestern University Medical School since 1940 and during World War II was one of the preeminent U.S. Army orthopedic surgeons, treating wounded veterans like current Kansas Sen. Robert Dole. Now an emeritus, Kelikian is still relentlessly demanding. “Pound it, goddamn it, pound it!” he barked at a novice surgeon cutting at a bone recently.
An Armenian immigrant, who arrived in this country in 1920 with $2 and a rug, Kelikian has never charged an Armenian for treatment. “It was my father’s wish,” he says. In addition, a generation of émigré surgeons owes their careers to him. “He arranged for us to come to America, and we could not tell him no,” says Dr. Mihran Tachdjian, now head of orthopedics at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Adds “Keli” associate Shahan Sarrafian, who arrived in Chicago in 1956: “He is open-minded and forever young in his thinking.”
Rising at 4 a.m., Kelikian often begins not with his medical writing but with poetry, fiction and literary criticism. The still unpublished novel he wrote in 1935 has collected 86 rejection slips and a comment from novelist and fellow Armenian William Saroyan, who, solicited for an opinion, said, “We’ve been friends for 20 years. Let’s not spoil it.” (Saroyan wrote, however, that Kelikian is “an enormity…his kindness, understanding, intelligence and humor are instant…with a child in a hospital or a poet at a dinner table.”)
The “literary room” in Kelikian’s Chicago home includes everything from Willa Cather to John Irving, and he urges novels on his students. “They can learn how an epileptic feels from Dostoevski, about an Oedipus complex from D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and tuberculosis from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain,” he says.
Kelikian was inspired by his uncle, the chief surgeon of the Turkish army, who rescued the boy and his family when the Turks massacred most of young Hampar’s Armenian mountain village in 1915. After emigrating, Kelikian got his training at the University of Chicago and Rush Medical College. Interns tease him that his annual trips to the Mideast are simply to preserve his heavy accent.
Married to a singer for 22 years, Kelikian divorced her in 1949. The same year he married his present wife, Ovsanna, who bore him three children. The oldest, Armen, 29, an orthopedic surgeon like Dad, was married in July. At the reception a belly dancer hired to amuse the guests found herself in a boisterous pas de deux with an octogenarian partner.
“A man who can’t love a woman,” grins Kelikian, “cannot be a good surgeon.”