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Arland O. Fiske: ‘Hap’ Lerwick: From lumberjack to surgeon

We first met in 1963 when he performed a complicated surgery for my brother Dennis.

Dr. Everett R. Lerwick soon became special to our family both because of his outstanding medical skills and because he was a Norwegian in St. Louis. There were not many of them in that metropolitan area. Hap’s father moved from Kristiansund on Norway’s West Coast to Oregon. As a young man, the future surgeon worked in lumber camps during the summer to earn money to prepare for his profession. There that earned the name “Hap” by his cheerful disposition. He studied at the University of Oregon and the University of Missouri Medical School at Washington University in St. Louis. This was followed by a stint with the military in Korea (1950-1952). After a plastic surgery residency in Philadelphia, he returned to St. Louis where he became chairman of the Department of Surgery at Missouri Baptist Hospital in 1960. His travels for lecturing and performing vascular surgeries have taken him to Brazil, Mexico, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Norway. The last time I visited with him, he was still excited about his trip to Stavanger to teach Norwegian surgeons. It has not been uncommon for St. Louis newspapers to carry a story about one of Lerwick’s surgeries. He designed a “Roto-Rooter” that unclogged arteries. A 64-year old man had unbearable pains in his foot. Using the instrument called the Hall Arterial Oscillator, he cleared the arterial plaque that was keeping blood from circulating in the limb. The man walked again without pain. A 70-year-old man was helping his son cut firewood when he was accidentally pulled into a 30-inch blade that cut through more than half of his body. He was able to say, “I want to go to Missouri Baptist, and I want Dr. Lerwick.” Hap was in a shopping mall buying a shirt when the hospital reached him. The surgery took seven hours and 14 pints of blood. An assisting surgeon said, “This man should not have lived to even get to the hospital. I’ve never heard of anyone surviving such a wound.” He recovered and had a good life. Lerwick had a great appreciation for his father, also a physician. He invited me to his home so I could visit with his father in Norwegian. I took along our son Michael to play the violin for him. Our daughter Lisa also came along to smile. He was a delightful gentleman and lived well into his 90s. He opened up the new Lerwick Clinic on Nov. 15, 1885, in downtown St. Louis near the famed Arch. It was modeled after the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where patients can get all their diagnostic tests under one roof. It was to be open 24 hours a day. Six million dollars was spent to renovate a 90-year old building. One of the programs was to give patients a risk assessment on how to live longer. Blood chemistry, body fat, weight, blood pressure, smoking habits, stress tests results and age were to be measured against risk factors such as cancer and heart disease. Lerwick made surgery look easy. But he also raised cattle in hopes to develop a breed with leaner meat. Many people kept wondering what he would do next. Our cousins in Norway are always interested in what became of those who immigrated to America. When I shared this story with Magne Holten, a journalist from Surnadal, a valley to the southwest of Trondheim, he wrote an article in the Driva newspaper speculating that the origin of the Lerwick family was from Lervik in Valsoyfjord not far from Kristiansund. Wherever he hailed from, may there be many more of his kind both in Norway and America. Dr. Lerwick died on Dec. 10, 2008. in St. Louis. We lost a good friend. Next week: ‘Snowshoe’ Thompson carries the mail.

— ARLAND FISKE, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.