The Embattled Career of Dr. Koop
The Koops arrived in Washington like innocent tourists who had accidentally wandered into a war zone. In Philadelphia, Koop's surgical triumphs—separating Siamese twins, repairing facial deformities, repositioning a child's external heart—had attracted much publicity. The recipient of many awards, including France's Légion d'honneur, he was often identified in newspapers as Philadelphia's "best-known" favorite son.
But now the hometown press joined in the chorus against him, printing a cruel cartoon of Koop as a two-headed monster. Each morning Koop's son, working in another city, would find a newspaper under his office door with the articles defaming his father circled in red grease pencil.
Koop and his wife, Betty, were living in temporary quarters, surrounded by boxes still unpacked. Each day Koop would report to a spacious office from which, if he leaned back in his chair, he could view the dome of the Capitol and its huge American flag. Though near the seat of power, he had no power; he had only the city's scorn. After four decades of 12-hour, frenetic workdays, he now faced an empty "in" box, a silent telephone, and a blank calendar. Hand surgeon Paul Brand, who visited him then, recalls, "I had the impression of a caged lion, full of enormous power; he paced the room with literally nothing to do. And I also had the impression of a wounded man, a man in need of comfort, in need of the body of Christ."
Koop himself reflects, "I couldn't understand why God would disrupt such a peaceful, quiet, productive life and bring me down into that mess. The worst day was when I went home one afternoon—the sun was coming in through the half-drawn Venetian blinds in our little one-room apartment in Georgetown—and I opened the door with my key and saw Betty there reading the Washington Post with tears falling down her cheeks."
"I don't need this!" Koop fumed. "I've never been treated this way before, and it's wrong to put my family through it." This time it was Betty who reminded him that a sovereign God must somehow have a purpose behind the disruption of their lives. "If you quit now," she said, "you'd always wonder." She added with a wry smile, "And don't forget—you no longer have a job in Philadelphia."
No cardboard-cutout ideologue
As anyone who has watched television, read newspapers, or listened to radio in the last several years knows, C. Everett Koop finally got the job of surgeon general (thanks mainly to the dogged forts of Sen. Jesse Helms), and against all odds emerged as one of the most visible, colorful, and admired public servants in the nation. When he announced his resignation last spring, his former critics fell over one another heaping fulsome praise on the man they had once vilified. Dan Rather pronounced him "the best surgeon general in history." Representative Waxman, now one of Koop's biggest fans, readily agreed: "He's a man of tremendous integrity. He's done everything a surgeon general can do, and more." The American Public Health Association, the same group that had fought his nomination, honored him with their highest award for excellence. Nearly everyone except, strangely, Koop's original allies joined in the applause.