A Tribute to Dr. Gary Purdue

by Alexander Eastman, MD, MPH

Editor's Note: The following remarks were delivered by Dr. Alex Eastman at Dr. Gary Purdue's Memorial Service on Satuday, October 9, 2010, at the First Baptist Church in Carrollton, Texas. The remarks are presented here, in their entirety, with Dr. Eastman's explicit permission.

I am a Parkland Surgeon.  Period.  For those of you outside our Parkland family who may not know what that means, let me tell you.  The surgical training program at Parkland is a sometimes brutal crucible that takes young, wide-eyed new doctors and turns them into caring, competent, and compassionate general surgeons.  We are impeccably trained.  A Parkland surgeon is trained to do more with less than most of his peers, he (or she) is trained to put patients first, he’s trained to suffer if need be, all in the name of doing the right thing for our patients.  We’re inculcated with the ethos that we get the job done, no matter what.  To achieve that in a mere five years (or longer for some of us), the training program has to have role models.  It has to have role models because as residents, we have got to have a model to follow, someone to emulate.  By every definition of the word, those faculty members that embody the spirit that makes Parkland what it is and has been, those people are our heroes as residents.  For me, my hero was Gary Purdue.

No matter the situation, no matter the problem, no one, and I mean no one, was a better teacher, a better counselor, a better family man, a better leader, a better mentor, or a better role model than Dr. Purdue.  It is important then to define hero, because by understanding that you will understand what I mean. 

First, a hero does what we simply cannot.  Sure, we learned how to care for the burn patient, to sit by their bedside watching drop after drop of urine fall, to sustain their lives, to graft and to help their wounds heal—those were the easy parts.  We could learn those things, but we could never match Dr. Purdue’s commitment, his zest for that balance of surgical care, compassion and a never ending supply of empathy not just for the burned patient, but for their loved ones as well.  We often wondered, at the end of a long day when we were exhausted, hungry, and tired how exactly Dr. Purdue kept going. 

His was an inexhaustible supply of energy and resources when it came to his patients and their loved ones.  Many of his former patients are here today, a testament to exactly this.  You will see that balance was how Gary Purdue lived his life, so this ability to deftly navigate from problem to problem, patient to patient, shouldn’t surprise anyone. 

We often talk longingly of the days when giants roamed the halls of Parkland Memorial…let there be no doubt—Gary Purdue was one of those true giants.  Surprisingly though, as a giant, everyone who trained under him will tell you it was amazing how fast he could sneak up on you.   We should have been able to hear a giant coming, and maybe his footsteps were tempered by his profound humility, but as the burn chief, you’d be trying to fix some mistake, some heinous deviation from the “bible” of burn care, the resident manual, by your junior resident and the there he was.  You would try to make one last move to right the ship before you called him, and there he was.  You’d try to slip something by him, and there he was, you’d be gathering your thoughts as the phone rang to his house in the middle of the night, and there he was.  The minute you thought you were slick…there he was, looking at you with that look that said…Uh huh, I know.  He’d never front you out in front of the nurses, never make you feel anything but perfect, but the look was enough to say...I’m always watching and trust me, I know everything.

Personally, my heroes are also men of character and honor, and Gary Purdue embodied those two words like no man I’ve ever seen.  He’s from a family of warriors and he was no different.  After seeing war himself during two tours in Vietnam, he chose to fight his battles as an advocated for those who couldn’t care for themselves.  He chose to fight for burn patients who are often underrepresented in terms of advocacy and for injured children, who he defended with unparalleled passion.  But his legacy is so much more than that. Look no further than who he leaves behind— Ian, Keith, Kyle and Heather, all of whom I’ve come to know over the years to embody the fighting spirit of their father in so many ways. 

My office in the division is physically located between Dr. Purdue’s office and the microwave he used to pop popcorn every single day.  Incidentally, I find it somewhat ironic that a man dedicated to mitigating the consequences of thermal injury used to burn the life out of so many popcorn kernels.  But every afternoon, he’d burn his popcorn, and come into my office.  Because of our law enforcement bond, I’d get a daily dose of Ian chased this dude, and Kyle caught that guy.  Wed sometimes sit there for a while…trading stories, and planning to solve the police world’s problems.  Not just because he was father of two cops, but because of the way he lived his life, he understood my quest to make the job of being a police officer safer.  We’d also change subjects, talking about Keith’s cases and Heather’s cheerleaders.  Ian, Keith, Kyle, Heather…I know you guys know this, but he was just so proud to come in and regale me with your exploits.

It also was fun to see his influence on the boys…I’ll never forget seeing Ian when he first was on the Mesquite SWAT team…you could see Dr. Ps influences all over his kit as he was the best equipped rookie swat officer I’d ever seen!   I cherish those times your dad and I spent together and will always remember the awesome look on his face as he bragged about y’all.

Many of you know that Dr. Purdue’s nickname amongst the housestaff was The Padre.  It so aptly described a man who trained more than 500 of us over his 28-year career here at Parkland.  Parkland residents, and some of our faculty too, have marveled for years that The Padre seemed to know everything, seemed to have his finger on the pulse as we say.  Well of course he did, because everyone in this room sought his counsel, cherished his advice, and knew that when the chips were down, when times were tough, it was the Padre who would put you back on the right track.

When times were tough, you went to see The Padre.  When you had an ethical dilemma that seemed to have no solution, you went to see the Padre.  When there was trouble at home, you went to see The Padre.  When you just needed someone to talk to, you went to see The Padre.  I’m Jewish, and even I went to see The Padre…many times. 

Make no mistake, by virtue of taking a look around this room you should be able to see that Parkland Surgery is so much more than a training program…we’re a family.  Over the last few years, that family has at times been under siege.  Whether it was from within or an onslaught from the outside, we’d stick together.  Gary Purdue for all the time I’ve been at Parkland has been the glue that has bound our Parkland family together through his service, leadership and the unwavering ethical and professional standard of practice he set.  Laurel, I stand to speak for everyone gathered in this room today to tell you that no matter how much time passes, no matter what new challenges we face, no matter how much we grow, mo matter what…your family and ours are unbreakably bound. 

These days after his death have been by far the toughest of my near decade at Parkland.  To not only deal with the loss of a partner, friend, confidant and mentor, but to have to at the same time care for the man who caused this made for some pretty rough sailing.  But as we agonized what to do and how to do it, all in the face of unthinkable agony, I was reminded of something Gary said to me several years ago.  When faced with a gut wrenching ethical dilemma on my service, I sought his sage counsel.

His message was clear that day, and I’ve tried to remember it every day since.  This afternoon his message could not be more poignant—the measure of a man’s character occurs not when times are easy and things rosy, but when one faces his darkest hour.  It’s then that you find out what you’re made of, how strong your character really is, and now, looking back, whether or not you’ll live up to the standard that was set so aptly by Dr. Gary Purdue.  That is the level, the bar that he set for us, and is that which will challenge us to be better for years to come.

Today, we come together, our extended Parkland family, to allow ourselves to take a break collectively, to grieve, to cry, to laugh and to remember.  But if it were someone else’s memorial, I think it’s clear what advice Gary would give us all—while it hurts, and while it will be hard, and while we face an unfillable void, there are people right now being wheeled into Parkland that need us. 

They need us to lift our heads, to walk tall, and whether it’s tonight or tomorrow, or the next day, when you walk back through the doors of Parkland Hospital or wherever you’ve taken the Parkland way, we’ve got to honor his legacy and memory by providing the stellar level of care that has become synonymous with Parkland and with Dr. Gary Purdue.  It’s not what he would want…he simply would tolerate nothing less.