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Dr. William S. Middleton (excerpt from my memoir, Healing with Feeling)

In my life, I have been lucky enough to have had my share of amazing teachers. The star in that array for me would be Dr William Middleton, who was my terror and blessing in my third year of medical school at the University of Wisconsin back in 1971. He was an icon already at that time, beyond being an incredible teacher. He was brought on board to teach at UW and quickly became the Dean of the medical school. He only left his position as Dean to run the Veteran’s system in the US and ultimately was head of the US medical forces in Europe during World War ll. He returned to teach at UW at the VA Hospital which by then was named after him!

It was with some trepidation that I and my three innocent colleagues met with an aging but still powerful Dr Middleton. He was short and graying but still stood ramrod straight with piercing eyes that took us in at a glance

“Hands out of your pockets, soldiers!” he cried. Turning his attention to one of my comrades he called out. “That wall has been standing perfectly straight since 1955 on its own, It needs no additional support from you.”

The four of us knew we were in for an interesting two months studying medicine at the VA with our new professor. Little did we know. In addition to our knowledge of medicine our dress and behavior and general knowledge were fair game. He truly loved the patients we were caring for at the VA and would often test our general knowledge beyond medicine to amuse them. He could smile, “Mr. Chudnow, what particular illnesses would Mr. Jones here likely have since he works on a dairy-farm? By the way, what type of cow would you raise to give the highest per cent butter fat in its milk?” (I now know Jerseys are the answer)

While I looked bewildered the farmer would be laughing his head off.

Luck could sometimes be on our side. One morning I was late coming into an x-ray

review meeting with our revered instructor. Sneaking into the darkened room offered no escape. “Mr. Chudnow, so nice of you to join us. Before you sit down please tell us what you think is the most likely diagnosis of the anterior chest mass on this film?”

My own chest was pumping as I calmly stated the only of four possible answers that I then knew. “Substernal thyroid,” I croaked.

“Right you are!” he acknowledged. “Now go sit down, and don’t be late next time”

Sometimes miscommunication could cause issues. On rounds one morning we saw a patient that had a prostatic nodule . Our mentor made us promise that all four of us would do a rectal exam on this patient to know what a prostate nodule felt like.

That day for some reason the nurses moved that patient into another room and a different man was placed in that bed instead. The next morning on rounds Dr Middleton demanded if we had all done a rectal exam on this patient and we had to say no. He wouldn’t let us esplain that this was not the man with the prostate nodule and flew into a rage. He threw his papers on the floor and stomped out of the room. I think the nurses later explained to him what had happened.

We learned a great deal of medicine over the next 2 months as well as how to be a caring physician and person. We all became truly fond of this icon in spite of his sometime gruff exterior.

Despite his eighty years, he would swim every morning that he could in Lake Mendota at 6 AM. We all met him out there one morning much to his amusement. When we all jumped in he did have to observe, “Well three decent dives, but that was a bit of a belly flop, Mr. Chudnow.”

After 2 months I did work up the courage to ask him for a letter of recommendation for my eventual internship. His piercing eyes once again transfixed me. “I think a decent haircut and a clean shave would be a fair trade for a letter of recommendation.”

“I thoroughly agree, “I said. It was the last time I shaved my beard in. the last 50 years. It was well worth it.

* Image credit: Middleton, William S, Medical History Essays

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