Thank You, Dr. Whitaker

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Commentary - September 2010

Tex Med . 2010;106(9):69-70.

By Mike Cox

I've never been shot in the gut with a .45, but surely one of the next closest things is hearing you have cancer. That happened to me - at 44 with a pregnant wife - in August 1993.

While much of what my gastroenterologist said that day is now hazy, I clearly remember what he said before referring me to an oncologist.

"Austin has a lot of good oncologists," he began, "but I like to consider my patient's personality when I recommend a specialist. You obviously have a sense of humor, and you're a bird hunter. You and Jack Whitaker will get along fine."

And indeed we did. A photograph of Dr. Whitaker and actor Larry Hagman on a Nebraska pheasant hunt greeted me in his exam room. The room also sported a framed watercolor of Dirty Martin's, an old-time Austin hamburger joint not noted for health food.

Anxiety ridden, I had my first appointment with Jack only a few days before dove season opened. We discussed hunting prospects before talking about my prognosis. I left feeling better, knowing I was in good hands.  

Jack was an old-school doctor who, while a consummate professional with a national reputation, didn't take himself too seriously. He took time to talk to his patients, no matter how many were waiting to see him.

For most of my appointments, we spent a third of the time talking about hunting or telling jokes. But when we finally got down to my case, Jack knew what he was doing. To back that up, before determining my treatment, he consulted with a colleague at the Mayo Clinic, where he had once practiced.

In addition to the medical course of action he laid out, Jack offered several nonmedical suggestions that served me well. He told me to keep working unless I absolutely could not make it to the office, to keep a positive outlook, and, in those pre-Internet days, not to pay too much attention to published works on my kind of cancer.

"If you have any questions, just ask me," he said.

About the time I finished my treatments, my wife, Linda - by now busy caring for our five-month-old daughter - learned she had inflammatory breast cancer. The doctor who diagnosed her also suggested she see Jack. Since she had accompanied me to many of my visits, she readily agreed, and Jack started a chart on her.  

Though parenting a teenager may yet kill us both, Linda and I are still in good health. In fact, five years after my last chemo round, Dr. Whitaker pronounced me cured. He later admitted that early on he hadn't expected me to make it. "But I wasn't going to tell you that," he said. "I believe patients have to have hope."

While born in Omaha, Neb., like the old saying goes, he got to Texas as soon as he could. He acted more like a Texan than a lot of Texans, always wearing boots and wild ties unless he had on a loud Hawaiian shirt.

When President Kennedy came to Texas in November 1963, his first stop was San Antonio. After Air Force One landed, Army doctor Capt. Jack Whitaker, then stationed at Brooke Army Hospital, was summoned on board. The president had a backache, and Jack ordered him some pain pills. Two days later, the president was assassinated in Dallas.

Two years after that, Jack became Austin's first oncologist. Cigar ashes blowing in the wind, he roared around town in a Mustang ragtop, upgrading to a gold Corvette convertible as his practice picked up. In 1970, he helped found the People's Free Clinic, a nonprofit organization today known as the People's Community Clinic.

When not treating patients, Jack liked watching baseball or football, hunting and fishing, playing poker, and generally enjoying life. He played with the late Austin book dealer John Jenkins, aka "Austin Squatty" in Las Vegas, among others. Those who faced him over cards said he could be merciless in running a bluff or building up a pot.         

Despite his wild ways, which he would be the first to confirm, he was happily married and a devoted father and grandfather.

In 2008, I learned that Jack was retiring. I went in for a final checkup, which I passed. By then it had been 14 years since my last treatment. In that decade-plus, thanks to Jack's expertise, skilled surgeons, and good drugs, I lived to see the child my wife had been carrying in 1993 grow into a young lady. I went on to write several books that wouldn't have seen print but for his medical abilities. Before I walked out of Jack's exam room for the last time, I shook his hand and thanked him for all that.

Jack's retirement was short-lived. He died July 22 at age 77 of the very disease he spent his career fighting. Four days later, his family and many friends held a memorial service featuring a slide show of family snapshots and an open forum for the telling of Jack Whitaker stories.

On reflection, Jack had never seemed overly concerned about his diet (though he once warned me that cancer loves fat cells) or his penchant for good cigars and better whiskey. It may be, as a pioneer oncologist with decades of experience, he understood better than most that when the party's over, the party's over, no matter how careful you are with your habits.

I know in saving my life - well, postponing my death - Jack was just doing what he had trained to do. And thanks to my insurance company and his many other patients with their coverage, he got paid well to do it.

But Jack never lost sight of the fact that there's more to being a good doctor than being a good doctor.

Mike Cox is an Austin historian and author.

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