Long ago in a land nearby I worked for a world famous surgeon. Sounds like an exaggeration, I know, and I guess somewhere in the world they haven’t heard of him. But those in that somewhere wouldn’t have access to healthcare. In most other places, he'd certainly be known.
Around here he was first known for a man he worked with, then for the team he assembled, and the hospital he put on the map. But long before that he was known for a balloon catheter he invented to restore blood flow in occluded vessels. Its creation changed the way physicians thought about and administered treatment. His impact has not diminished over the years. The number of inventions and patents has increased (I hear 70 now) as have companies and ventures launched by him (apparently 30 or more).
I worked at the back end of things collecting coin for the practice owned by him and his partners. It was heady stuff at first, didn’t want to mess up. Felt proud I’d been chosen and was always conscious that I represented a class outfit that managed every aspect of their business with excellence. Especially patient care, and stewardship of employees and hospital staff. They excelled in those categories.
I would have been more awed and nervous but for one thing, the guy with the name was mostly a regular Joe and sometimes a world-class bumble-head. He sort of mumbled when he talked, and sounded like he was eating when he wasn’t. His hair was thinning and usually in need of a trim. His shirt was barely tucked. He paired his dusty brown shoes with a worn black belt that cinched a slightly protruding belly. His polyester slacks rarely stayed put so the crotch and butt sagged and the pant legs dragged along the ground behind. If his car needed a wash then his muddy Toyota Land Cruiser begged for a scrub.
From a different generation and with positive intention he sometimes used terms of endearment with female office staff not considered appropriate for a work setting. Never mind the racy poster of a naughty nurse behind his office door. Because we were certain he wouldn't purposefully be disrespectful, he was more apt to get a look than a problem. Occasionally he'd be reminded about things deemed politically incorrect. World Famous Surgeon Sued for Sexual Harassment was not a news headline we wanted for him because of an absentminded exchange as he foraged for cashews in the snack drawer. We took his care and feeding seriously which was no more than he did ours.
I hadn't long worked for him when one morning I drove into the back parking lot slightly after he did. He was exiting his car and I saw him pause to talk to the gardener who cared for the flowers in the concrete planters and blew leaves from the parking lot.
“Good morning,” I said and passed them to enter the building. I overheard their conversation about the next group of annuals the gardener planned for spring. The boss nodded and collaborated the same way he would with any colleague and friend as they joked and chatted.
It was after that I began to formulate my description of him. When asked by dozens of individuals throughout my stint and for years after what he was like, I answered, “He has a way about him—you can’t do what he does and he can’t do what you do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a gardener or a surgeon. You both do something special and everyone's the better for it. That’s who he is.”
He left the organization years before I did. He practiced down the road, became dean of a university biomedical engineering school, continued inventing, and tended to a vineyard venture that bears his name. One he’d started slightly before I met him. His house was on the property, too, as was a small man-made pond he kept stocked with fish for catch and release. I’d picnicked on the dock of that pond and fished there with my young son, back in the day.
A couple of days ago I visited the now large winery that stands on that property remembering when its one bookkeeper shared our office. The pond now has a fountain in the center and is the entry point for a vast operation with event venues and tasting rooms and vines as far as eyes can wander till the Santa Cruz Mountains block further view. The area where we walked to the pond is now paved parking for winery visitors.
I tasted a few of the many wines. I wandered through time to the first three he shared with us. Chardonnay. Gewürztraminer. Champagne (when the French allowed us to call it that). The pine gift box with two bottles of wine he would present to each of us at Christmas. I remembered the day I watched him with our building groundskeeper.
“Really? What was he like, back then,” she asked.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même
chose. You know how I love that French stuff (except l’escargot because there’s no language that makes snails okay) but in English I love this phrase even more. Frequently we say it meaning we wish they really would. This time a dear place inside me awakened to find, most pleasantly, the more things change the more they stay the same.
I described Tom as I always had. “You don’t do his job, and he can’t do yours. But together you do something special.”
She looked at me intently, cocked her head slightly and squinted. “That’s him. That's exactly who I work for.”
And we're both the better for it.