November 14, 2013
I’d like to pay tribute to a man whose name you’ve never heard before. But, believe me, he deserves this tribute.
Late last month came word that Chuck Klieman, Thoracic and Endovascular surgeon at our hospital, died in a diving accident in Hawaii. Our hospital was, to put it gently, devastated.
Of course, none of you knew the man so let me explain that 1) he was an all-pro surgeon and 1) the word unavailable simply wasn’t in his vocabulary. Unless he went on vacation you could call him any time of the day or night and, no matter what the circumstances, he’d reply “I’ll be there”.
I don’t even want to think about how many people Klieman put back together in his lengthy career.
There’s another word that just wasn’t in his vocabulary. That word is panic. Charles Klieman got about as nervous and jittery as a bucketful of collapsed matter. You’d accomplish more if you tried to scare a brick (You know, red? Oblong? Makes a good wall?).
A lot of people think that their favorite artist or band is cool. Well, if you really want to see cool you should meet many of our physicians. Klieman held his own with the best of them.
Need an example? Our hospital is an inner-city trauma center and we get numerous gun shot wounds, stabbings, etc. One day a while back Dr. Klieman was called in emergently to help with a patient who was seriously bleeding. Some bleeders are trivial. Some are serious. This one was a four-alarm fire. I was involved because, as head of the blood bank, I had to keep an eye on inventory. So there I am shuttling between the lab and the OR where Klieman and Dr. Maxine Anderson (another physician way up there on the cool chart) are, no exaggeration, elbow deep in blood.
As I rushed back to the OR from checking on the status of the blood bank I literally stopped dead in my tracks. There’s Chuck Klieman, standing next to the front surgery desk, arms folded, as calm as if he were watching a weather report on TV.
I managed to say, “Is the patient OK?”
Chuck got a slight grin on this face. “The patient’s fine,” he said.
“You sewed up the bleeder?”
Still grinning he said, “Oh, yeah.” We could have been discussing what the cafeteria was going to serve for lunch. All I could do was salute. Instead of going to the morgue the patient walked out of the hospital.
When he wasn’t taking people apart and putting them back together again to keep them breathing he loved to paint. As I write some of his artwork hangs in our hospital.
Remember the classic movie, It’s A Wonder Life? Clarence, the guardian angel allows George Bailey to see what everything would have been like if George had never been born. At one point Clarence tells him, “Strange, isn’t it? Each mans’ life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
When Jeffrey Lucey died he left behind a mighty big hole. All of the over 4,000 American soldiers who died after our invasion of Iraq left behind huge holes. When my father dies several years ago he left a terrible hole behind. And when Charles Klieman left this earth he left behind an incredibly big hole.
But he’s still there as far as I’m concerned. He’s right there standing next to the surgery desk after having put out another impossibly big fire, grinning, as calms as if he were painting a portrait instead of snatching another soul back out of the reach of death.
Along with unavailable and panic, there’s one more word that will also never apply to Chuck: replaceable.