I get asked from time to time why anyone would want to be a doctor. Today I can answer: William Collier MD FACS. I do not mean to say I became a doctor because of Bill Collier, my close friend for the last 18 years. I mean to say if you are a young man or woman looking to live a life full of meaning, you should think upon Dr. Collier’s time on this Earth in this town of McPherson.
Bill Collier had little hope of ever getting beyond being yet another farm boy working his life away in obscurity dreaming bigger dreams until he signed on with the Navy V-12 program in WWII, which was training anyone with the brains and drive to learn critical jobs, such as doctors. Leaving his small Missouri hometown, he signed up, kept up and ended up with an MD. The Navy was a harsh task master. Had he flunked one grade, Bill would have been shipped out for immediate combat sea duty.
Getting to be a surgeon wasn’t very easy back then, but Bill after a little detour doing psychiatry did get a residency and joined a very unique corps of young men and very few women who were surgeons in the immediate post WWII era. Many great pioneer surgeons came from this corps who would win Nobel Prizes, create open heart surgery and lead in the longest continuous surge in health care improvement in surgery in the history of humankind. We read about these famous surgeons in the history books, but there were others just as bright and exceedingly dedicated who went to places like McPherson, and became the surgical backbone of small town America.
Bill Collier came to McPherson in the late 1950s as the first fully trained surgical specialist ever to practice here. Just like the farm, the Navy and surgical residency, starting a “surgery only” practice wasn’t easy. In those days, GPs (not FPs for there were no family practice residencies at that time) did as much surgery as surgeons. They didn’t necessarily think they needed a young man out of residency doing surgery on their patients. The concept of specialization was long in coming, and Bill worked away keeping up with changing surgical technology and eventually creating a fine practice.
Of course, Bill wasn’t one-dimensional. He had an insatiable desire to learn and contribute. By 1966, he took up flying; a past time that would take him all over the country in the more than 3,000 hours of flying he accumulated before he had to quit at age 87 due to his acquiring a terminal illness.
He joined Rotary and was faithful to the organization for decades rarely missing a meeting. He raised four children with the help of Mary, his wife. All the time he was on call for months without break and doing surgery that covered an amazing breadth of surgical challenges up to and including emergency brain surgery for clots in the brain due to trauma.
Page 2 of 2 - Bill had grace, style and gallantry — the sort of traits now distressingly uncommon in a world of four letter words, greed and grandstanding. Bill was unassuming but unbending in principles. He was personally brave and rugged. Despite the stereotype that surgeons are unfeeling and leave their families abandoned, Bill like many of the great surgeons was both a fine operator and a fine husband and father. He just didn’t give up on trying to be the best at what was important and thereby succeeded.
As it comes to all, death finally claimed William Collier. Bill, however, did not grieve for himself but instead heroically faced his end with the same equanimity, bravery and grace with which he faced life. He died as he lived with his family around him and the honor of having done something that changed our town, state and world. He raised a family. He loved his wife. And he saved lives for more than 40 years. Such opportunities abound for those willing to commit their lives to medicine as William Collier did.