By Kenny Ryan
Cardiologist John Harper ’68 vividly remembers waking in the middle of the night to the sound of his father crying out in pain.
It was 1964 and Harper was 17 years old – just a year shy of starting college at SMU. But he was as frightened as a small child that night when he peaked through a cracked-open bedroom door into the hallway of his West Texas home. A physician named Bruce Hay was arriving at 3 a.m., impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit, his black doctor’s bag in hand, to offer aid.
Harper’s father was a bear of a man, a former basketball player named Frank who was his son’s hero. The doctor walked up to Harper’s father, put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Frank, it’s OK. I’m here now, and I’ll stay until you’re better.”
And then he did. The doctor tended to Harper’s dad, answered his mother’s concerns, and even reassured the young man who was watching from a bedroom door.
That’s the kind of personal touch Harper says is often missing from medicine these days. The key to getting it back, he says, may be literature. That’s why he’s hosting the 7th annual Literature + Medicine Conference from 8 a.m. to noon April 1 at SMU’s Mack Ballroom in the Umphrey Lee Center.
“Science has become so complex and hard to keep up with that it’s a legitimate thing to say you don’t have time to be empathetic, but it’s important to try,” Harper says. “My argument is that you need good science to be a good doctor, but you also need a compassionate side. The best medicine is science and compassion intersecting at the patient.”
Harper’s path to medicine wasn’t a typical one. The budding bibliophile earned an English degree from SMU, initially with an eye toward studying international law, but then, while signing up for classes his sophomore year, he had a change of heart.
“I was sitting there, filling out my proposed schedule for the year, and I realized I was signing up for a lot of pre-law courses I didn’t really want to take,” he remembers. “Then I thought about Dr. Hay, the doctor who came to my house that night, and I thought of my uncle, who had been an orthopedic surgeon, and I picked up the phone and called my dad and asked him what he’d think if I changed my major to pre-med. There was pause, and then he said, ‘I’d be very delighted.’
“I loved the English and stuck with it for my degree,” Harper adds. “But for my other courses, I took biology and chemistry.”
The biology and chemistry provided the foundation that got him through med school, but the English and a lifetime love of reading is what Harper credits with making him a truly successful doctor. In his acceptance speech for a 2014 SMU Distinguished Alumni Award, Harper cited “remarkable faculty” in the humanities and sciences with shaping his future success. “SMU is where I learned to make decisions,” he said. “Even today, if I have a hard decision, whether it be medical, personal, financial, whatever it is, I come to this campus and walk here because this campus catalyzed my ability to go through a process and come to a conclusion.”
Building on his undergraduate education and medical school training, the cardiologist formulated his prescription for better medicine over time as a practicing physician, mentor and teacher. In addition to serving as the Ewton Chair of Cardiology at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, Harper instructs residents at Presbyterian Hospital and medical students from UT Southwestern with an approach as unique as the path that led him to study medicine. He often assigns his students the homework of listening to an orchestra and training their ears to pick out a single instrument: The talent that allows them to isolate the piccolo is akin to the talent that will enable them to identify a subtle flaw in the rhythmic beating of a human heart, he explains. Harper also likes to read excerpts from books to his students during class so they can practice their attentive listening skills – another dying art, he says.
“I ask myself what kind of doctor do I choose to utilize, and most are well-rounded people,” Harper says. “There are times you just want someone to operate on you and you never talk to them or hear from them again, but other times you want someone who can understand how you’re feeling, commiserate with how you’re feeling, and help you through what might be an emotional process.”