C. Everett Koop was my celebrity

    The recent death of C. Everett Koop, MD, hit me hard. He was my kind of celebrity: A man blessed with a strong mind and an excellent education, who reached out and helped millions of people in the ways he knew how.

    Celebrity is in the eye of the beholder. You might appreciate media darlings like Ben Affleck and Ray Romano — or you might admire athletes like, uh, Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius.

    I, on the other hand, find that brilliant minds often lead to celebrity. Andy Warhol, Hillary Clinton and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., they’re the kinds of celebrities who rank for me.

    The recent death of C. Everett Koop, MD, hit me hard. He was my kind of celebrity: A man blessed with a strong mind and an excellent education, who reached out and helped millions of people in the ways he knew how. While his friends were legion, his avowed enemies were tobacco (he called smoking “the most important health issue of our time”) and the spread of AIDS.

    Dr. Koop served as chief surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) from 1946 to 1981 – a remarkable 35 years. In 1969, my first husband (FH), a surgical resident at Penn, decided to take a fellowship in pediatric surgery at CHOP. Koop accepted him for the following year.

    At the surgery department’s annual Christmas cocktail party, I met Koop. He told me he liked to know the wives of his fellows – there being no female fellows at the time, so no husbands to meet. We spoke for a few minutes, but I, uncomfortably pregnant, couldn’t stand much longer. We sat down and chatted for about 45 minutes.

    I already respected this man, and this chance meeting gave me an opportunity to like him, too. He asked about my professional and personal interests, stopping when he thought he had exhausted the topics. I felt good.

    Forget that FH lit into me later for “monopolizing” the time of Doctor C. Everett Koop. I was amazed at FH’s ridiculous interpretation of the social exchange. I always thought highly of Koop.

    Shortly thereafter, my one-year-old son developed a hernia. FH consulted Koop, who, I read recently, performed more than 17,000 inguinal-hernia repairs, including David’s. I slept in David’s hospital room for a few nights. David has lived happily ever since.

    FH eventually moved out.

    When David was a teenager, FH told David that C. Everett Koop, then Surgeon General of the United States of America, had corrected David’s hernia. David, bursting with the new information that an important man had operated on him, told me the whole story.

    “You know what, Mom?” he said. “Dr. C. Everett Koop, who is now the Surgeon General of the United States of America, took out my hernia!”

    “Yes, David,” I said. “I know. I was there.”

    “Oh,” he said quietly.

    C. Everett Koop, who, long before Sara Jessica Parker or James Earl Jones, always had three names, will live forever as one of my celebrity favorites.

    Reach Susan Perloff at writerphiladelphia.com.

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