Retired ER physician chronicles adrenaline-filled career
MIDDLEBURY — Dr. Paul Seward always wanted to become a pilot. But he ultimately settled into a long career as an emergency room physician, a vocation that provided him with as many thrills and as much of an adrenaline rush as any stunt pilot could ever experience.
Seward, a 75-year-old Middlebury resident, has captured many of those thrills — both the ups and the downs — in a non-fiction book titled “Patient Care: Death and Life in the Emergency Room.” The book will be available beginning July 3, at area bookshops and online.
Seward attended Stanford University, graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1968, and then did his internship and residency in pediatrics at UC San Francisco.
His entrée into the medical world and specialty of pediatrics during the early 1970s coincided with a paradigm shift within the hospital setting. Seward’s bosses at his first job at Ukiah (California) General Hospital saw his potential.
“I was happily practicing pediatrics when the emergency medicine field began to come into existence, and the first thing that happened was instead of just having random physicians being on call for the emergency room, they felt they needed to staff them with physicians who actually knew something about emergencies,” Seward recalled.
“Seeing I was a pediatrician who knew nothing about adults, I was obviously the best candidate,” he joked about his sudden recruitment as an ER doc.
Seward took to the emergency room work, which broadened his already strong skillset.
“When you practice in emergency medicine, you’re constantly inviting surgeons and internists to join you and they can’t help but want to teach you stuff,” Seward said. “So I had the best residency in emergency medicine I could ever have, just by following my mentors around.”
The American Board of Medicine began certifying emergency physicians in the early 1980s, and Seward joined the fold. Certified as both a pediatrician and an emergency physician, his skills were in high demand.
“I decided to get career-oriented … and started running around the country,” he said.
He accumulated many destination stickers on his doctor’s bag, working in ERs and serving in leadership positions at hospitals far and wide.
His stops included Tucson, Ariz.; Tacoma, Wash.; Augusta, Ga.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Lake Placid and Plattsburgh, N.Y.; for a year, before donning his white coat and stethoscope for physician/administrator stints at Saranac Lake Medical Center and Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh.
In 2012 the Sewards again packed the moving van to New Hampshire to provide comfort and care to some ailing family members. They moved to Keene, N.Y., in 2015, and then to Middlebury in 2017.
Through it all, Dr. Seward accumulated a lot of stories based on his experiences in a variety of ERs. He decided he wanted to share them. That meant getting some feedback and some training.
“I’ve been writing all my life in various ways,” he said, citing letters and articles in various medical journals.
He tried his hand at writing a novel he has yet to submit for publishing.
Having finally retired a few years ago, Seward at last had enough time to hone his writing skills. He took a non-fiction writing course at Southern New Hampshire University. He wrote the first two chapters of his new book as part of his course work.
Seward’s writing teacher gave him encouragement.
“She said, ‘You can write. You can do this,’” he recalled.
The final seal of approval came from his wife, Linda. She had given his novel writings a tepid reception, but gave a thumbs-up to his non-fiction work.
So Seward gradually peeled off additional chapters, culled from vivid recollections of his experiences in emergency rooms. Individual cases stir a variety of emotions, predicated by outcomes and real-life drama. Jubilation. Sadness. Wonder.
Included in “Patient Care” is a story about a child delivered by C-section who didn’t have a brain — but did possess enough of a central nervous system to breathe. The parents were delivered the devastating news and suddenly had to confront the most horrific decision — allow their child to die — on what should have been the one of the happiest days of their lives.
Seward offers an account of a surgeon reattaching the thumb of a newborn whose thumb was accidentally cut off by a nurse who had snipped it while changing a dressing.
There’s a heartrending narrative about trying to resuscitate a three-year-old girl who has drowned in her family’s backyard pool. ER team members try everything they can to bring the girl back, but to no avail. The father keeps rubbing her feet, hoping she will miraculously revive. In a cruel twist of irony, Seward learns the family brought the little girl to Ukiah, Calif., to keep her safe from the violence of a more urban setting.
And there’s a heartwarming anecdote about a nervous father whose fears are allayed when Seward properly diagnoses — and quickly fixes — his son’s arm he thought was broken.
Ultimately, Seward sought to convey two main messages to readers.
First, a sense of what it feels like when confronting at-times life-or-death medical emergencies when emotions are running high and time is of the essence.
Second, he wanted people to know that ER medicine is more than sutures and X-rays.
“The point to a lot of the stories is: This not just a job about patching people up, this is a job about human values in difficult situations, and I hope that came through,” he said.
Seward believes his book will appeal to the masses as well as fellow physicians who’ll be able to relate to the material.
“There are people who don’t know about an ER, know they might have to go there some day, and who are curious about what it feels like to work in an ER,” Seward said. “But I freely confess I wrote this for my peers, also. If I’ve done my job, then a working ER doc should read this and say, ‘I hope my patients read this, because then we’ll both know each other better.’”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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