Huey P. Long was a well-known political figure in Louisiana during the 1920’s and 1930’s. A gifted attorney from Winnfield in Northern Louisiana, he rose to power as governor for 2 terms and built such a support base he was elected to the United States Senate. Huey who was called “The Kingfish,” made himself known as champion of the common man and had such an impact on the lives of so many Louisianans he is still well-remembered. He became so popular nationally many considered him a serious rival of Franklin D. Roosevelt for the presidency.
When Cathy and I moved to New Orleans in 1965 to begin my training at Charity Hospital, I became more familiar with the extent of Huey’s influence. Charity Hospital with its’ 3000 beds was arguably the largest hospital in the country comparing it to Cook County Hospital in Chicago and Los Angeles County General Hospital. Huey’s political influence during his reign as governor reached deep into the fabric of this state-funded hospital and into medical training in the state. Charity was flanked on either side by Tulane University Medical School and LSU Medical School, and was the major teaching hospital for both schools. When LSU Medical School was funded and built in 1931 under the leadership of Huey, the first Dean of the school appointed was Dr. Arthur Vidrine who was formerly the Superintendent of Charity, and he happened to be Huey’s personal physician. Huey also named Dr. Urban Maes, a prominent New Orleans surgeon as Chief of Surgery at LSU with the stipulation and understanding by Huey that he would exert no more political interference in the school.
Throughout my 4 years of training I was tutored by some outstanding surgeons on the faculty and also a few men who were in private practice in New Orleans.One of those men was Dr. James D. Rives who had retired as Chairman of the LSU Surgical Department in 1962, three years prior to my arrival. He was immediately named Professor Emeritus and was always present at our weekly resident’s conference held in Miles amphitheater at Charity Hospital. This conference was called “The Bull Pen,” and could be an intimidating experience for young junior residents. Dr. Rives had a quiet and calming demeanor which was in sharp contrast to some of the professors, whose icy stares and impossible questions kept the resident’s anxiety level near 10 (on a scale of 1-10)! For some reason Dr. Rives was especially kind to me and took extra time engaging me in private conversations which greatly encouraged me. He knew I was planning to return to Arkansas to have a private practice in a rural setting. He said that his goal in training surgeons when he was the Chairman was to produce more surgeons in private practice rather than the more academic surgeons who would remain in the large medical centers.
Some of my most memorable experiences in New Orleans occurred as I became a senior resident and was privileged to assist some of the attending surgeons with their private practice cases. At that point, I had developed greater confidence and skills which were beneficial to those surgeons in their more difficult cases. Since it was forbidden for us to receive remuneration for work outside of Charity Hospital, it was also cost-effective for the surgeons to have us assist them. Dr. Rives was in his 70’s in age at the time, but was still doing a few surgical cases, mostly hernia repairs. Whenever he operated at Touro Infirmary, he would contact me to assist him during those 2 years. I couldn’t wait to help him because he was an excellent teacher and I loved hearing all his stories from the past.
One of his best stories concerned the operation done on Huey Long when he was wounded in an attempted assassination in 1935. Senator Long was confronted at the state capitol in Baton Rouge by a disgruntled physician, who after some heated words pulled a small-caliber pistol and fired 2 shots, one of which struck the senator in the abdomen. He was immediately transported by auto to Our Lady of the Lake Hospital and his physicians were called. Dr. Vidrine happened to be in Baton Rouge and assumed primary care of the wounded senator. A call was made to New Orleans to summon Dr. Maes to come quickly when it was determined that an abdominal operation was needed. Dr. Rives accompanied Dr. Maes to assist him with the procedure. Initially they were scheduled to fly in a chartered plane, but decided that they could make the 80 mile trip faster by driving. Unfortunately, they had a flat tire which delayed their arrival by about 3 hours.
Unaware of the causes for the delay of the surgeons, Dr. Vidrine made the medical decision to proceed with the operation without their assistance. At operation, he found 2 small holes in the large intestine which he quickly repaired, and some additional bleeding in the region of the kidney which had seemingly stopped, so no other repair was done. Just as he closed the abdominal incision, the surgeons arrived and inquired of the findings and the procedure. Dr. Vidrine had failed to place a urinary catheter and later when that was done, blood was found in the urine indicating a kidney injury. By this time it was unsafe to re-operate, but instead to give him blood transfusions and hope for stabilization. Since the surgeons were no longer needed and the time was about 2 am, both Dr. Maes and Rives returned to New Orleans. Huey’s condition deteriorated slowly throughout the next day and despite all medical efforts he died in the early morning, 31 hours after the injury.
I heard Dr. Rives tell this story on several occasions and he usually stated, “I always wondered what the political outcome for Louisiana and the country would have been had we not experienced that flat tire on the Old River Road, and Dr. Maes were able to operate on Huey to repair the fairly simple kidney injury.” This was surely a case in which history was altered by the lack of integrity of a rubber tire. One must never forget the sovereignty of God who could have prevented that tire from ever going flat. The ever-present question of “Why?” will one day be answered when God makes known His eternal purposes which are always perfect.