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McQuiston: Koop's Legacy

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http://www.vpr.net//audio/programs/56/2013/03/McQuiston-0307 C.Everett Koop_030713_Tim McQuiston.mp3

(Host) When former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop died last week at age 96 inHanover, Vermont Business Magazine editor and commentator Timothy McQuiston was reminded of an interview he had with Koop 19 years ago. Koop was living in Vermont at the time and had just started working at Dartmouth.

(McQuiston) When I heard the news of his death, the first thing I thought of was how he talked about his own living will at some length - and stressed the importance of planning for one's end-of-life circumstances. His daughter, he said, would make the appropriate decisions when the time came. The time came last week and I wondered what, if any, decisions his daughter had made.

The second thing I thought of was why he was famous in the first place. Certainly being named Surgeon General of the United States doesn't make one famous. Can you name the current one - or any one, for that matter?

Koop had a Quaker Oats beard and his first name was Charles, though I doubt very much anyone ever called him Charlie, or The Chuckster - and he became famous because of AIDS.

Koop was surgeon general during the Reagan Administration in the 80s, when AIDS became a national calamity. At first it was a mysterious disease that plagued certain demographic groups. HIV was discovered to be its incurable cause. But because it most profoundly struck gay men, it also quickly became a socio-political debate.

The administration took a laissez faire attitude toward AIDS, thus giving some ugly Americans the cover to say things like, They got what they deserved. Never mind who they were or that diligence was not paid to the blood supply, causing the disease to spread further.

This was truly a bad time.

He was picked by President Reagan because he was a conservative, notably on abortion. But as a medical professional he was conservative in the classic sense. He was a doctor first.

Koop recognized that AIDS was not a political or social issue; it was a severe health care problem of epidemic proportions that had to be dealt with immediately - and that blunt action was needed.

Perhaps Koop wasn't the first government official to use the word condom in public, but his public stance in television commercials and other media made the term safe sex part of our American lexicon.

He recognized the public health disaster that was AIDS. He stood up for his principles as a physician. He was vilified by some and scolded by others, but he forged ahead. He never retreated from his stance that the first thing that had to be done was to slow down the spread of a disease that not only was incurable, but for which at the time there was not even a treatment protocol.

Doctors need to be direct. Sometimes they tell you you're going to die; sometimes they save your life. That's their job. Koop saved untold numbers of lives, but he didn't think of it that way. When I interviewed him in a small room at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, he didn't talk much about AIDS or the politics of the 1980s. He was a conservative doctor. He wanted to talk about the role of the health care provider and the responsibility of the individual.