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The Good Doctor

Matt Schudel

Sometimes when I'm writing an obituary, I run across someone who is so admirable and so humanely decent that it's hard to believe. The moment I knew there was something extraordinary about Dr. W. Proctor Harvey was when I learned that he had his medical students listen to Beethoven. He loved music, sounds and words and taught his students to listen and to be attentive to the needs of their patients -- and to use technology as a last resort.

I interviewed several people about Dr. Harvey, and all of them revered the man. For more than 50 years, he was a standout teacher and one of the country's top cardiologists.

In the obituary, which is in the Oct. 17 issue of The Washington Post, I describe the career of Dr. Harvey, who taught at Georgetown from 1950 practically until his death on Sept. 26 at age 89.

I describe an incident in the story in which he diagnosed a previously unidentified heart condition from the doorway of a room, just from the irregular pulse in a patient's neck veins. I heard a lot of similar stories about Dr. Harvey, as well, which I couldn't fit into the obituary. (As it was, I went four inches over my allotted space.)

Dr. Harvey and another physician once went to Colombia to confirm some diagnoses of 42 extremely complex and difficult cases. In two days, he examined the patients, using little more than his eyes, hands and ears (and the three-headed stethoscope that he invented) and diagnosed all 42 cases correctly. The assembled doctors rose in a standing ovation, and his stethoscope was raffled off.

Dr. Harvey, who described himself as a Type B personality, welcomed interruptions, was never too busy and seemed to have time for everyone, and that included patients, most of all. One person told me of the sad case of a 4-year-old girl who had an inoperable and, unfortunately, fatal heart ailment. Dr. Harvey sat down on her bed to talk with her -- and play with her.

Dr. Harvey shook hands with all his patients partly out of respect and partly for diagnostic reasons. He could detect a person's pulse in a handshake, and 80 percent of the time, he said, you could diagnose an ailment from the pulse alone.

Three different physicians told me they believed that Dr. Harvey's mere presence had a therapeutic effect on patients. He made them better just by being with them. When he took their pulses, he would recite, "Strong .... strong .... strong" skipping over the weak beats in a pulse. Why? "Because a patient will only remember the word 'weak,' " he said.

He knew what patients went through and what it was like to experience death and loss. His father died when he was young, and he had little money while growing up in Lynchburg. He paid his own way through college and medical school and, according to his son-in-law, used "his last penny" to travel to Boston after World War II to intern with a leading cardiologist. Later, Dr. Harvey lost two sons -- one at age 5 and another at age 32, from (believe it or not) an undiagnosed heart problem.

The doctors I spoke with held Dr. Harvey in universal respect. They called back immediately to talk about their experiences with him and the example he set. One cardiologist, who is a professor at four universities and the medical director of a heart institute, was making his hospital rounds when I left a message that I wanted to ask him about Dr. Harvey. Within 20 minutes, he had called me back and spent half an hour recalling the lessons of his mentor. (I only wish my own doctor were half so responsive.)

One measure of the man came from his son-in-law, George Trivette, who studied with Dr. Harvey at Georgetown. When he married Dr. Harvey's daughter, Dr. Harvey walked his daughter down the aisle, then stood in as his son-in-law's best man. Now, that's respect and devotion.

In the end, it does my heart good (in more ways than one) to be able to tell the story of such a wonderful man who did so much for so many.

By Matt Schudel  |  October 17, 2007; 12:06 PM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel , Washington DC-area people  
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