Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Thanks, Doc

My personal introduction to Dr. William T. Haley, Jr., who died last weekend, was through trauma. My landlord had a woodworking shop below our apartment, and I had the run of it. Whilst working on a project I managed to put a chisel through my left hand. I hadn't had medical training yet, so I didn't realise there were benefits to leaving the damn thing where it was. I pulled it out; the hand bled.

I was 27, therefore indestructible, therefore had no PCP, but I knew "Doc" Haley's office was a couple of blocks away, so I managed to drive there. This was an old-fashioned, one-physician practice. I walked in and a polite receiving nurse asked what they could do for me. Around this time I'd lost enough blood to be light-headed and I just let go my direct pressure on the hand by way of reply.

I found myself at the head of the line and in an examining room. Doc came in, as calm and polite as anyone could be, just as if I hadn't just sprayed blood all over his waiting room. He examined the wound, did a little debridement, then closed me up with three stitches a side: no anesthesia. As he worked, he commented that a shot at this stage would hurt more than the stitches, since I was in a little shock. He was right. I waited a while for my wife to come get me, and the nurse did the paperwork while I was waiting...after the procedure.

I had the pleasure and privilege of working with Doc many times over the years that followed, chiefly in boating education matters. He was always that calm and matter-of-fact, and had an amazing store of information and experience at his fingertips.

While it was common knowledge in town that Doc had been an Army doctor in World War Two, it was only this spring that we began to realise that his service had been a little out of the ordinary. The tip-off was when he received the Legion d'Honneur. That's rare enough for an American but improbably rare for a physician non-combatant.

This is what Doc Haley did, paraphrased from his Marblehead Reporter obituary:

While serving with an armoured cavalry unit during the Normandy campaign in 1944, Haley was involved in a firefight with a similar German unit. The fight became protracted, with wounded from both sides lying between the combatants. Armed only with his medical bag, Red Cross badge and a makeshift white flag, Doc calmly stood up and walked across the no-man's land as firing slowly died down in astonishment. He spoke German: asking for the German commander, Doc requested a cease-fire to treat the wounded. Despite his surprise, the commander agreed, on condition that Haley treat the wounded of both sides, to which Doc agreed. Eventually both units withdrew.

This act, which is dumbfounding even if you knew Doc, but which was perfectly in character, won him the Distinguished Service Cross. We didn't know that either, and when all this came out he didn't think any of it was especially heroic. He was later one of the liberators of Buchenwald, which may have affected his perspective.

Those who have followed these scribbles over the years know that I value valour, despise the contemporary cheapening of the word "hero", and believe the contributions of military and naval medical personnel are inexcusably neglected by a pop culture more interested in dead soldiers than the people who try to save them. All of these come together in my sense of loss. But even more, the town and planet have lost one of the most courteous, humane and decent individuals I have ever known. Doc, we're going to miss you.



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