Back on the Fairway
“Physician, heal thyself.” It’s a popular quotation from the New Testament. Like most of us, Peter Whitted, MD, has heard it many times. He knows what it means – and knows better than most people how difficult it would be.
Dr. Whitted is Chief of Medical Staff at The Nebraska Medical Center. He is a practicing ophthalmologist and a clinical instructor at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine.
He’s a dedicated, experienced physician who graduated from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine – and the University of Nebraska College of Law. He is a husband, a father, an avid golfer and, when it comes to most other sports, a man who would rather participate than sit on the sidelines.
He also is a cancer survivor.
In 1991, at the age of 41, Dr. Whitted was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that originates in the lymphatic system, which ironically is the network of glands that helps the body fight disease.
He underwent nearly five months of chemotherapy. His ability to work limited by the effect of the treatments, he saw a few patients but stopped performing surgery. He experienced all the highs and lows, the physical and emotional discomfort, the worry and the challenges that burden anyone battling a life-threatening illness.
“I’m the kind of person who, when faced with something personally, I tend to circle the wagons and keep other people out,” he says. “The only thing that bothered me, while I knew I couldn’t control the physical part, I thought I could control the mental part. But you can’t. I couldn’t.”
His family was supportive. His son and daughter even took him to elementary school with them – as a “show-and-tell.”
“I tried to never say, ‘Why me?’” he recalls. “Only once did I look around and wonder why other people don’t have this and I do. But only once.
“As I look back, I was at a place I didn’t want to go. I wanted to see my kids grow up. I didn’t want to miss out on that.”
All the while, he got to see his profession from the other side of the examination room. “It’s impressive,” he says. “Not only the work that physicians do but also the ancillary personnel.
“I think it makes you more empathetic. Maybe it makes you discard some things that aren’t really important. We tend to forget how special every day is.”
He smiles. “It changed my attitude toward golf. I was afraid I wasn’t going to play again. I think that’s why I appreciate it so much now.”
His cancer has been in remission for 17 years. He hopes it stays that way.
“When I talk to my oncologist, I ask him what I have to worry about,” explains Dr. Whitted. “He says, ‘Recurrence.’ I say, ‘Thanks, now talk to me about something else.’”
Peter J. Whitted was born in Omaha. His father, Warren, is an attorney who worked for Mutual of Omaha, Blue Cross and Blue Shield and other companies. His mother, Marjorie, worked as a journalist for newspapers, including the Omaha World-Herald. Both parents still reside in Omaha. He has a twin sister, an older sister and a brother, Warren Jr., who is an attorney in Omaha.
A graduate of Westside High School, Dr. Whitted says he had planned on being an insurance actuary. One summer working for an insurance company was enough to change his mind. “It was boring,” he says.
He made friends and had fun while an undergraduate studying economics and math at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
His school spirit was immortalized in a photograph published by Life magazine in its Nov. 26, 1971 issue. It accompanied an article titled “Go, You Big Red” detailing the “frenzy” that accompanied the Nov. 25 football game between Nebraska and Oklahoma, the 35-31 Nebraska victory now referred to as the “Game of the Century.”
In the photo, Dr. Whitted is carrying a Nebraska coed on his shoulder.
“It was her idea,” recalls Dr. Whitted, who has the magazine page framed in his Dodge Street office of Midwest Eye Care. “She’d met the (Life magazine) folks at a pep rally and asked me to be in the photo with her. They took the shot of me walking toward them. It’s my face and her rear, with ‘NU #1’ on her underwear.”
He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1972 and entered law school. But by the time he neared graduation, he realized the legal profession, like the insurance profession, was not for him.
“So I asked myself, ‘Where are the brightest people I know?’ I thought it was in medical school, not recognizing yet the difference between being smart and being a good student.
“Doctors are learning machines. They’re not necessarily the brightest people, but they know how to learn.”
He’d made his choice. “I took the bar exam on Thursday and Friday, and I started medical school on Monday,” he says.
He passed the bar and has been a member since 1976. “I’m still looking for that perfect case,” he says, sarcastically, “where I can sue myself.”
He didn’t have ophthalmology in mind when he entered medical school. “I was going to be a pathologist,” he recalls. “I liked pathology. All the reasons I was going to be a pathologist are still true.
“You have the ability to do the work at your time. If you want to read slides at 5 a.m., you can go and read slides at 5 a.m.”
The field of eye care was suggested by a friend. “It is a pretty extraordinary profession,” he says.
Still, he envies the sort of flexibility a career in pathology might have provided.
“By 4:45 a.m., I’m up,” he says. “I read journals or anything else I need to catch up on. By 7 a.m. there’s a meeting someplace. At 8 a.m., I start seeing patients, up until about 5:30 p.m. Then there’s another meeting, or home.”
Thursdays and Friday afternoons he performs surgeries.
On the weekend, Dr. Whitted enjoys playing golf. He is an admirer of the pros, having been to every major tournament except the British Open.
“The shots they hit today, I think the equipment has gotten so much better it really impacts the game,” he says. “I remember watching Gary Player hit it out of the rough once and saying, ‘God, how did he do that?’”
He also enjoys swimming, an activity especially important in the wake of two back surgeries, in 1979 and two years ago, to address spinal stenosis, a congenital narrowing of the canal in the spine that can result in herniated disks.
“I love golf,” he says, “but swimming is my exercise.”
During his two-year appointment as Chief of Medical Staff, Dr. Whitted acts as an interface between hospital administration and staff. He represents the physicians in important matters and helps set policies.
As a physician, he has some very strong opinions about medicine and those who practice it.
“I think we need to separate the financial aspects of medicine from the caring for people aspects,” he says. “I don’t think you ought to do a ‘wallet biopsy’ before you treat somebody. Let’s not forget, we’re here to treat patients.
“Being a doctor is a gift, a privilege; not a right. It’s a pretty amazing trust that people place in us. We shouldn’t abuse that.”
He thinks doctors, while among some of the hardest working and dedicated people he knows, should become more involved outside of medicine.
“Most people in medical school serve as president of something, yet all of a sudden, once they’re out practicing, they check out of the community,” he says. “We need to realize that we’re not just part of the medical community, we’re part of the entire community.
“Getting involved is important, at any level, whether it’s with a non-profit or coaching or politics or the Kiwanis. Doctors always say they’re too busy. Everybody’s too busy. That’s not unique to this profession.
“They say that the more you do, the more time you have. I think that’s true.”
Dr. Whitted serves as a trustee with the University of Nebraska Foundation and the American Academy of Ophthalmology. He is the medical director of the Nebraska Lions Eye Bank and on the board of directors of the Nebraska Medical Association and COPIC Companies, a Colorado-based physician service organization. He has served on many other boards, including the Omaha Medical Society, Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and Siena-Francis House.
He also is a volunteer ophthalmologist with Hope Medical Outreach. One day each year, he participates in Mission Cataract as a volunteer surgeon, performing cataract surgeries at no charge. He has volunteered on medical mission trips to China and the Dominican Republic.
“I’m not the brightest person, but I am a hard worker,” he says. “And I really do care about my patients doing well. I don’t tolerate bad outcomes well.”
Cleary, Dr. Whitted is passionate about his work.
“I marvel at medicine,” he says. “It really is amazing. No two cases are ever the same. It’s never dull and it’s intellectually challenging. That’s the richness of this profession.
“Far too often, we get caught up in what we can’t do. We should continue to be awed by what we can do.”
That means making the most of a patient’s abilities, he says, rather than focusing solely on his or her limitations.
“I know people with macular degeneration and they still go out and play golf,” he observes. “We need to work with the vision and abilities people do have. It takes an open mind and a willingness to adapt.
“I believe that with every difficulty comes an opportunity. We can’t cure everybody, but we certainly can try to heal everybody.”
It makes more sense than trying to “heal thyself.”