The Sound of a Whistle
It wasn’t so much a calling that Richard Hurd, MD, was responding to when he chose family practice medicine.
It was a whistle.
As a student at the Lyons, Neb., high school in the late 1960s, and later during summer breaks from college in the early 70s, Dr. Hurd was a member of the Lyons Volunteer Rescue Squad, a service his father, Edwin, had helped establish.
“Whenever the town whistle would sound, we’d go out on a rescue,” he recalls. “We’d perform basic first aid care. There were no paramedics back then.”
At the time, Lyons was home to about 800 people and one general practice physician, Clifford Hadley, MD. Eight miles south along U.S. Highway 77, Oakland was home to Gayle Peterson, MD, and Oakland Memorial Hospital. Whether it was transporting victims from an auto accident or someone with a heart attack, whenever the Lyons Rescue Squad would pull up to Oakland Memorial Hospital, one of the two physicians would be there to meet it.
“Because I showed an interest in medicine, and because there were far fewer legal issues involved in patient care back then, I often had the opportunity to assist the doctors at the hospital,” Dr. Hurd says. “If it was serious, we’d do our best to stabilize the patients and get them to a larger hospital. But we did our share of IVs and chest tubes, stitches, even applied quite a few old plaster casts.
“That’s really where I received my first medical training and it was free.”
When it came time to choose a career, Dr. Hurd briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a marine biologist. “I grew up swimming in the lakes and the swimming pool in town,” he says. “I loved being outside and in the water and I always had an interest in science.”
After completing medical school, he chose family practice because, he says, there really was no other choice for him.
“Lyons was 40 miles from Sioux City and 80 miles from Omaha,” says Dr. Hurd. “The only doctors I knew at the time were general practitioners. When it came time to pick a field, I thought, why would anybody want to do anything else?”
Today, as director of Clarkson Family Medicine, a family practice residency program affiliated with The Nebraska Medical Center that he co-founded in 1991, Dr. Hurd faces the challenge of convincing medical students that family practice can be just as personally rewarding as choosing a specialization.
“It isn’t easy,” he says. “A family doctor or an internist can spend an hour in the intensive care unit, while another specialist spends the same amount of time performing a procedure. Yet, one fights to get a couple hundred dollars while the other is paid a couple thousand. These kids are coming out of medical school deeply in debt. Choosing family practice can mean a continued sacrifice for them.”
But, Dr. Hurd says, it’s a decision they won’t likely regret.
“I am convinced that in no other specialty does a doctor develop the kind of relationship and mutual respect with one’s patients as we do in family practice,” he says. “It’s hard to convince medical students that some things can be worth more than money, but it’s true.”
Dr. Hurd’s strong work ethic can be traced back to his father, who worked many years at the hardware store in Lyons. He doubled as a jack-of-all-trades, not just selling tools but going to people’s homes and repairing their furnaces, air conditioners, plumbing and electrical systems.
“He’d get up for work at 7 a.m. and come home when it was dark,” Dr. Hurd recalls. “On Saturdays, when all the farmers would come to town, he’d be lucky to get home by midnight. Still, I never felt deprived because he’d make time for baseball, camping and fishing.”
Dr. Hurd saw in his father a rare quality that he grew to admire. “Everyone in town leaned on Ed and knew that if they called, once he arrived with his cap on, everything would be all right,” he explains.
He cared for his father and his mother, Lois (Beal), up until their deaths from cancer two decades ago. Being at their bedsides until their last moments served to underscore his love for family medicine.
“It requires a special level of care and commitment,” he says. “It isn’t for everyone.”
Dr. Hurd began practicing at Plattsmouth (Neb.) Family Physicians shortly after completing his family practice residency. He and his wife, Mary, a registered nurse, continue to reside in Plattsmouth, where he has been the medical director of the Nebraska Masonic Home since 1985.
In 1991, he and colleague Richard Raymond, MD, began the Clarkson Family Practice Residency Program, which accepted its first resident that same year. In 1998, when Dr. Raymond left to become chief medical officer for the State of Nebraska, Dr. Hurd succeeded him as director at Clarkson Family Medicine. The three-year program welcomes six new residents each year, and Dr. Hurd takes great pleasure helping to teach and guide each one.
“I love it here,” he says. “Every year at graduation, when I see the kids who as interns were so unsure of themselves, walk out with confidence and competence, that’s a huge sense of accomplishment.
“I’d send my family to any of them.”
Medicine and education are the chosen careers for Dr. Hurd’s children. Sarah, 35, is a family practitioner in Papillion, Neb.; Ryan, 33, is an emergency department physician in California; Amy, 30, is a third grade teacher in the Papillion-LaVista School District; and Emily, 28, is an operating room nurse at a local Omaha hospital. Dr. Hurd and Mary have four grandchildren.
When he isn’t working, Dr. Hurd still enjoys spending time under water. A recreational scuba diver and certified dive master, he and his children have turned their vacations into underwater adventures, stretching from Antigua in the Caribbean to Hawaii. Mary opts to stay on shore.
“Mary hyperventilates when she tries to snorkel,” he says. “We go diving and she sits on the beach reading a book. It works out fine.”
His most memorable diving experience to date was swimming alongside whale sharks off the coast of Isla Holbox, Mexico.
“That was incredible,” he recalls. “These sharks are 60 to 70 feet long. Their mouths are like this,” he says, stretching his arms as far as he can. “But they’re plankton eaters, so it’s safe to be in the water with them.”
He also dives at the Scott Aquarium at the Henry Doorly Zoo, “cleaning the tanks and playing with the octopus.”
A piano player, who subsidized his college education performing at weddings and funerals, Dr. Hurd keeps busy on dry land. He runs four to five miles a day, travels to exotic places including Machu Picchu in Peru, and does his own home repairs and woodworking. “I built a crib for each of my grandchildren,” he says, proudly.
It’s the same sort of pride and passion that shows when he talks about the value of family practice medicine — and of passing it along to the next generation of family doctors.
“Back in the 70s, by the time we were done with medical school, we could do a one-year internship and then go practice,” he says. “Once we graduated, we felt we could go out and be doctors.
“Today, these kids come out of medical school and they’re still college students. That’s why the change after three years with us is so amazing.
“Their enthusiasm to learn and then go out and apply it helps keep you in focus. It reminds you why you’re doing this. It keeps me current. It keeps me young,” and eager to respond the next time there’s a knock at his office door — or a whistle off in the distance.