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Doctor calls trust strong medicine

U.'s commencement speaker began career in Belgian Congo

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Dr. William Close's medical career has taken him around the world and back.

Now 76 years old, Close spent his entire medical life in humanitarian causes around the world. He was born in Greenwich, Conn., and educated in England, France and the United States. He spent 17 harrowing years as a doctor in Africa. Now he has settled into a more quiet existence as "village doc" in Big Piney, Wyo.

Close has chronicled his adventures in a new book titled "A Doctor's Life." He'll be in Salt Lake City Friday, May 4, to deliver the University of Utah's commencement address at the Huntsman Center.

A dynamic, well-spoken man, Close has been at the center of multiple crises. Arriving in the Belgian Congo shortly before it achieved independence, he was in the middle of coup d'etats and rebellions that are so characteristic of that unhappy country. In a Deseret News interview, Close recalled going there with a small missionary group in 1960.

"I spoke French and had a black bag. We were supposed to be there for six weeks, and when it came time to leave, the army mutinied and the place blew up. By the time I got my act together, there was no way of getting out. So I went over to the general hospital to see if I could give them a hand in surgery. For a year and a half, I became the only surgeon and one of three doctors at a 2,000 bed hospital in Leopoldville."

Over the next several years, Close took care of several family members of Gen. Mobutu, who became president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which in 1971 became Zaire. Soon, Mobutu asked Close to take charge of the army medical corps. In the late '60s, he became head of the general hospital and was charged to make it into a medical center.

"Our occupancy was often 120 percent, with people on the floor and under the beds. Later, I formed a national health council, which put together some of the best doctors working mission hospitals as well as Congolese doctors. The mother/child health centers we established in the slums are still working."

Close accomplished all this with frequent long absences from his wife and family, numbering four children, including actress Glenn Close. He learned many things from his diverse experience in Africa. "One lesson is you can have fabulous training and you can be full of good will and enthusiasm, but unless you slow down and listen to the people you purport to help, you may miss the boat by miles."

An example from his African experience was an older man named Tata Felix, "a tall, thin Bengala, the warrior tribe from the north. His bearing was military, and the tribal markings across his forehead gave him a fearsome, distinguished look. He carried a spear and wore a faded khaki tunic with medals dangling from the pocket."

Tata Felix had been sent to protect the doctor during the uncertainties of revolution. Close admitted to being irritated by this new security guard, who seemed to sleep most of the time instead of doing guard duty. One day Felix insisted that Close come to his house to see his wife, who was ill. Close was reluctant, but he went.

When he found Tata Felix's wife, she was comatose in bed, and he suspected she had suffered a stroke, and that he could do nothing for her. But he decided to give her a harmless shot, so that Tata Felix would think he was a good doctor. She groaned as he administered the shot. Tata Felix shouted, "What did you do to her?"

When Close said he had given her a shot, Tata Felix was angry and said he just wanted a doctor to see her before she died. "I didn't think you would hurt her." Close was stunned and embarrassed. The old man pulled his chair over to his wife's bedside, shaking his head sadly. Close was shattered as he left, wondering "whether I would ever learn the complex art of medicine."

Tata Felix never returned to Close's house, and the doctor has carried that hard lesson with him for the rest of his life.

Close learned that "the most important thing in medicine is human contact. Trust isn't based on knowledge. Trust is based on spending time with patients and listening to them and touching sensitive issues with a feather, not with a sledgehammer. Now I spend a lot of time with older people in our community in Big Piney, Wyo., some approaching the end of their lives. We can tell them they won't die in agony or acute anxiety, that they will be taken care of well at home. We'll stick with them. That's a wonderful part of medicine."

Recently, Close spoke with a woman on the administrative staff of a Wyoming hospital. He asked her if she had ever been "grossly dissatisfied" with the amount of time a physician spent with her. She said, "That happened to me last week. I had all kinds of questions to ask the doctor. The interview lasted only a few minutes, then he got up, and I got up from the examining table and I stood in front of the door, and I said, 'We don't get out of here until you finish answering my questions!' "

When Close asked her what he did then, she said, "He looked at me, shook his head, then he sat down and said, 'Go ahead — I'm sorry.' "

E-MAIL: dennis@desnews.com