Harry Oberhelman, longtime Stanford surgeon known for wisdom, kindness, dies at 92

Oberhelman, who trained more than 160 surgical residents and served as chief of general surgery for decades, died Feb. 10.

Harry Oberhelman

Harry Oberhelman Jr., MD, professor emeritus of surgery and former chief of general surgery and gastrointestinal surgery at the Stanford University School of Medicine, died Feb. 10 at his home on the Stanford campus. He was 92.

For more than 50 years, Oberhelman, known to many as Dr. O, was untiringly committed to his Stanford patients. Many people who never saw him operate knew him only as “the sweetest, mildest person you could imagine,” said James B.D. Mark, MD, professor emeritus of cardiothoracic surgery and the Johnson and Johnson Professor of Surgery, Emeritus. But once inside the operating room, Mark said, “he was a tiger. He hated cancer, and he wanted to get rid of it no matter what it took.”

Oberhelman was as fiercely devoted to teaching young surgeons. He trained more than 160 general surgery residents in his 31 years as director of that residency program. In 1980, M. Ellen Mahoney, the first woman ever selected by Stanford as a general surgery resident, knew that being accepted in the male-dominated field would not be easy. Yet Oberhelman became not only a teacher but a friend and colleague who showed her that understanding patients was as important as knowing surgical technique, Mahoney said. “He taught us to be kind, to pay attention to who each patient was and to know that what a doctor might do in a given situation was not necessarily the correct answer for the patient,” she said.

A fixture of the department

Over his surgery career, Oberhelman worked with 10 medical school deans, five surgery department chairs, five acting chairs and many hospital administrators. He also served as chief of general surgery from 1964-90, chief of gastrointestinal surgery from 1990-97 and acting chief of surgery from 1997-2000.

In 1998, Thomas Krummel, MD, having just been appointed to the Stanford surgery faculty, met Oberhelman when he found himself in an office across the hall from elder surgeon. Krummel was named chair of the department the following year.

He understood bedside manner — the value of a comforting hand on someone’s shoulder, of being with a patient.

“Harry’s enormous counsel, wisdom and instinctive sense of how things were organized and what the issues were kept me off the landmines in my early days here,” said Krummel, the Susan B. Ford Surgeon-in-Chief at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and the Emile Holman Professor in Surgery. “He taught me patience.”

Krummel also saw in Oberhelman the courtly and gentle style of doctoring that made him so beloved among his patients and respected by his peers. “He understood bedside manner — the value of a comforting hand on someone’s shoulder, of being with a patient,” Krummel said. “Surgeons can be imperious, but Harry was very down-to-earth. He was a wonderful match of confidence and competence.”

Other colleagues remembered the visits he made to hospitalized patients, even on weekends and holidays.

A patient at Stanford

Oberhelman was actively involved in professional associations. He served as director of the American Board of Surgery from 1972-78; president of the California Board of Medical Quality Assurance in 1979-80; director of the Federation of State Medical Boards from 1979-82; and council member of the National Institutes of Health General Medical Sciences from 1982-85. He was a fellow of the American College of Surgeons and a diplomate of the American Board of Surgeons.

He was acknowledged by his peers in other ways. The annual dinner honoring general surgery residents who have completed their residencies is named after Oberhelman, and in 2014, Krummel raised funds to establish the Harry A. Oberhelman, Jr., Professorship, which is currently held by Mark Welton, MD, professor of surgery and chief of staff for Stanford Health Care.

Oberhelman was also a recipient  of the best medicine Stanford could give. In 1980, he collapsed from a heart attack at the hospital, and his colleague Norman Shumway, MD, the surgeon who performed the first successful adult heart transplant in the United States, repaired Oberhelman’s heart with a triple bypass. Legend has it that Oberhelman, while recovering in the intensive care unit, asked a nurse to bring him patient charts so he could continue to work.

Later, Oberhelman would have surgeries to repair abdominal aneurysms, hernias and spinal stenosis. He was also treated for glaucoma and prostate cancer. “I give my physicians a lot of credit for keeping me going over the years,” he said in a 2011 video honoring his 50th year at Stanford. “My experiences as a patient at Stanford have been excellent.”

Awards

Oberhelman retired from active surgical practice at the age of 78, but he remained “extraordinarily generous with his time,” Krummel said. “To me, it was the mark of confident surgeons that they could go and ask Dr. O for an opinion. He was near and dear to all of us.”

He was an innovator, a gentleman at all times, apolitical and always, always kind.

His colleagues showered Oberhelman with recognition over the years: Stanford awarded him the Alwin C. Rambar Award for Excellence in Patient Care and the Henry J. Kaiser Award for Outstanding and Innovative Contributions in Medical Education. The Santa Clara County Medical Society gave him its Outstanding Contribution in Medical Education Award, and the University of Chicago Department of Surgery gave him the Dallas B. Phemister Career Achievement Award. The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation honored him as a distinguished physician. Oberhelman also received the Albion Walter Hewlett Award, an honor from the Stanford Department of Medicine for exceptional physicians.

In 2006, Barbara Ralston, vice president of Stanford Health Care’s International Medical Services, recruited Oberhelman to be medical director of the program. “He was like our father, our grandfather,” Ralston said. “Anybody who knew Dr. O has a place in their heart for him because he had that kind of place in his heart for everyone. He was an innovator, a gentleman at all times, apolitical and always, always kind.”

Chicago native

Oberhelman was born Nov. 15 1923, in Chicago, the eldest son of a surgeon. “Over the years, his compassion and the respect that he was held in by his patients just solidified my desire to become a surgeon,” Oberhelman in the 2011 video. He accompanied his father on rounds, but also remembered his reaction to the first operation he watched his father do. “I was standing there, watching him operate, and I fainted.”

Oberhelman went to Yale University to begin his college education and lettered in football in 1942 and 1943. He returned to the Midwest to complete a joint bachelor’s degree and medical degree in 1946 at the University of Chicago. He also married his high school sweetheart, Betty, that year, and the following year they became the parents of Harry Oberhelman III, the first of their five children.

After graduating, Oberhelman served with the U.S. Air Force Medical Corps before returning to the University of Chicago to complete his surgical training. He stayed on as a research assistant to his mentor, Lester Dragstedt, MD, who was then chair of surgery and a well-known innovator of surgical techniques to treat gastric and duodenal ulcers.

Move to Stanford

 By 1960, Oberhelman was an associate professor of surgery at the University of Chicago. A former colleague who had joined the faculty at Stanford asked Oberhelman if he was interested in following suit. The Oberhelmans came to Stanford for a visit in November. The climate, compared to winter in Chicago, was instantly persuasive, Betty Oberhelman recalled: “We said, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’” The family moved into a spacious five-bedroom home on the Stanford campus, complete with fruit trees in the backyard.

Oberhelman began a routine that rarely varied for decades. Until the uphill portion of his commute to the hospital became too much, he made the 30-minute walk to the hospital. Whenever he could, he took the family to a lakeside cottage in northern Wisconsin. His wife’s father had built it in the 1920s, and Oberhelman, a man who liked to fix things, found plenty to do. At home, he carefully tended to a magnificent array of cymbidium orchids he’d collected and nurtured over the years. His loyalty to Stanford football was such that family outings were sometimes rearranged to accommodate the game schedule. He also attended the Stanford-Cal game annually for more than 50 years.

“There is a little place in heaven reserved for Harry,” said his former colleague, James Mark. “Because he deserved it.”

In addition to his wife, Oberhelman is survived by his brother John Oberhelman of Wheaton, Illinois; sister Barbara Uecker of Minneapolis; daughter Nancy Oberhelman of Colfax, California; sons Harry Oberhelman III of San Jose, California, James Oberhelman of Stanford, California, and Robert Oberhelman of Stanford, California; nine grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews. His son Thomas Oberhelman died in 2011.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. March 16 at Memorial Church on the Stanford campus. In lieu of flowers, donations in memory of Oberhelman may be sent to Stanford University Development Services, P.O. Box 20466, Stanford, CA 94309-0466.


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