Bidding a Sad Farewell to a Great Healer

"Red River Valley" was playing as we walked into Moseley Salvatori Auditorium at Good Samaritan Hospital, the notes as soft as a warm breeze through the cottonwoods. Several hundred people were gathered for a memorial service for Dr. Clarence J. Berne, chairman of the surgery department at the USC Medical School and hospital for 28 years until his retirement in 1969.

They had taped his favorite records and that's what was filling in the chinks as the room filled. Next came "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," then "The Bonnie Blue Flag" rollicked through the room. "The Yellow Rose of Texas" bounced along and then the melancholy notes of "Tenting Tonight." The last was "Dixie" and a tall man, looking eerily like his father, walked to the lectern, stage right. He was Thomas V. Berne, professor of surgery at USC, and Clarence Berne's son.

The first speaker was Norman Topping, chancellor of USC. "I had him as a teacher and I maintained my admiration for him all my life," Topping said of Berne, who died at 83 on Dec. 22.

The procession of famous surgeons continued with Leonard Rosoff, who followed Dr. Berne in the chair of surgery. "Even his closest friends called him 'Dr. Berne' when not in his presence," Rosoff said. "I knew him for 50 years as a surgeon and as a great physician and much more. With 28 years as department head and head of the education of residents, he had a pivotal influence in this area. He made many clinical innovations. He was adroit, teaching by the Socratic method, drawing the answers out of the residents. His weekly Friday morning sessions were learning lessons in gentleness, and he continues to affect surgical endeavors everywhere.

"It was easy to sit in his chair and impossible to fill his shoes.

"When he was still at L.A. County just before World War II, he organized a unit of Los Angeles County Hospital doctors, which became the 73rd Evacuation Unit in the China-Burma-India Theater. He was a lieutenant colonel and chief of surgery," Rosoff continued.

"He was quiet and shy and always able to communicate. He often said, 'Emotion has no brains.' He evoked deep affection and respect."

I knew what Rosoff meant. Dr. Berne was not frightening any more than a great Sequoia is frightening. He was simply a commanding presence. As a patient, I always felt I should rise when he walked into the room, maybe even curtsy.

The next man was Arthur J. Donovan, who is now chairman of USC's department of surgery. He spoke of Dr. Berne's "awesome intellect and his love of scholarship for scholarship's sake.

"Knowledge is proud of what it knows. Wisdom is sad that it knows so little. Dr. Berne was intensely sensitive. He never embarrassed a resident in front of his peers."

Donovan concluded with a prayer for the dead, which he said in Latin. He remembered that Dr. Clarence J. Berne, known to his oldest and closest friends as Tom, liked Latin because it is an exact language.

Next was William Mikkleson, clinical professor of surgery at USC. "He was my mentor and he is my mentor now. His students and the students of his students are carrying on his teaching. He was the consummate teacher."

Then Mikkleson explained why so many people called Dr. Berne Tom. "We were sitting in a bar in Santa Barbara after a meeting of a surgical group and I asked Tom about it. 'What would you be called if your name were Clarence?' Well, of course. He held the record for the javelin in the Big Ten and he qualified for the Olympics, but he didn't have the money to go. He was fond of using a well-known medical aphorism, 'Prima no necare'-- first, no harm."

The next speaker was Alton Shader, a clinical associate professor of surgery at USC. "The speakers who preceded me have spoken of Dr. Berne as a colleague. My relationship with him was that of king and subject. My reaction was exponentially beyond stark terror. His effort was to make surgeons out of residents and, most days, it seemed as if this was obviously impossible."

Shader, too, said that he had never seen Berne embarrass a resident.

Thomas V. Berne's son, John, is a first-year medical student at USC. There were other grandchildren there and one, Sean, read an account of an experience his grandfather had written, telling of a dangerous ordeal in the Burmese jungle when a plane went down between Calcutta and Kunming. Berne and a dentist hacked and waded their way to the downed plane and the flier was rescued by helicopter, which half glided and half fell down the sheer mountain. Dr. Berne and his associate slogged and chopped their way back to the jungle hospital. It took five days.

I met Dr. Berne as Tom because he was introduced to me by an old friend and contemporary who called him Tom. I always called him Dr. Berne. He had the clearest eyes I have ever seen. I always felt as if he could see all the marshmallows in my head, clear to the back of my skull.

He performed ulcer surgery on me, which involved putting a hose up my nose that drained some unspeakable stuff into a half-gallon bottle beside my bed. The stuff was toad-green and, of course, I snitched a towel from my bath and draped it over the bottle so I wouldn't have to see it. Soon, I was briskly scolded by a nurse who said nothing could cover the bottle because she had to able to see the level of the green guck when she looked in the door.

I asked her please not to tell Dr. Berne what I had done. I was not afraid of him, but I wanted so much to be a good dog and to please him.

About the third day, boredom prompted me to climb over the end of the bed carrying my jug of toad stuff, because the sides were up on the bed. They knew a troublemaker when they saw one. I rinsed out a nightgown, which Doug would have taken home and done, but then I wouldn't have had to climb over the end of the bed. I hung the nightgown on a hanger on the bathroom door and scrambled back over the end of the bed, carefully carrying my jug, and crawled under the covers and put the jug on the table just as Dr. Berne came into the room. The nightgown was dripping water on the floor, which was running out into the hall.

He came in and stood sadly beside my bed. His white coat was whiter then anyone else's and the starch crisper. I explained what I had done, apologized and he still stood there. I said, "Really, you can go, Doctor. I won't go over the end of the bed anymore."

"I thought I'd stay around and watch you wash the sheets," the great man said.

Oh, Dr. Berne, will you be seeing patients at your new location? I'd like an appointment if I get there. I'll be the one in the bed with the bars up, bet you a nickel. And thank you for not throwing me out of the Good Samaritan. Yours with devotion and awe, Zan.

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