The Death of a BFF

















Last known photograph of William Ekman 6/22/2018 by Whitney Hartmann Photography


Bill was 81 years old when he suddenly ceased to be.  A massive hemorrhage into his brain put his being into a permanent sleep, from which there was no waking up.

I met Bill nearly fifty years ago, at what then was called General Hospital of Ventura County.  We were both General Practice residents before the time they started calling it Family Practice.  We did everything from delivering babies to treating heart attacks and taking out infected appendixes.  We matured as competent doctors in the practice of medicine.  I recall one episode that foreshadowed our eventual jobs in this profession.  It got us both into trouble and caused the dismissal of a very good nurse because she aided and abetted our crime of sterilizing my cat.  LuciFur (Lucy) was a very fecund cat.  Someone had to intercede.  I did the surgery and Bill gave the anesthetic, using the main operating room at the hospital.  We did get caught and were both reprimanded but finished our training despite this misstep.  It was, however, the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

We both practiced together in Santa Paula in a group founded by a doctor who had preceded us in that residency program. The practice eventually grew to 19 physicians of multiple specialties.   We were like brothers in arms fighting suffering and disease in that small town.  It was a wonderful and magical time, and during lighter moments after a couple of beers we would compared ourselves to the Knights of the Round Table at Camelot. The group needed a general surgeon which fit my talents, ever since my cat surgery days.  I was gone for a brief four years to train in that specialty.  Upon returning and after a disastrous run of bad apple anesthesiologists at Santa Paula, Bill decided to take on the task of being Santa Paula Hospital’s anesthesiologist by taking the required additional training at UCLA.  He came back a very capable “gas passer” as he liked to refer to himself.  His calling card made the claim that you sleep better with Dr. Bill Ekman.  Both of us worked there taking care of literally thousands of patients for close to a quarter century, from minor problems to major trauma that State Highway 126 supplied us on a regular basis, day and night.  Before it became a five-lane road it was euphemistically called “Blood Alley”, a name which was quite appropriately applied to it.  I trusted Bill and he trusted me.  During particularly challenging operations, we worked together like a fine-tuned machine.  We knew each other’s thoughts and rarely needed to communicate verbally.  It was as if our thoughts were as one.  We anticipated each other’s actions and moment to moment needs.

Bill and I not only worked together but played together, along with our families.  One of those activities was water skiing.   We purchased a boat together and our favorite place was Bass Lake, near Yosemite Park.  There our offspring learned to ski and we enjoyed nature and each other’s company.  We named the boat The Exxon Valdez for the irreparable oil leak that plagued this boat for as long as we possessed it and provided a tell tail shimmering rainbow colored oil slick whatever patch of water it graced.  Bill, in his pre-doctor days, had acquired the skills of a short order cook at a resort at Lake Placid in the Adirondack Mountains.  He and Norma, his wife, supplied us with spectacular dishes for most meals which was no small task as there were often at least 25 to 30 mouths to feed.  There was no need for an alarm clock because the overpowering smell of bacon in the morning woke everyone and beckoned us for breakfast.  If that didn’t do it, the 8 o’clock horn that sounded to announce the lake was now open to skiing rousted the last sleepyhead to get up.  Amongst many things Bill taught me was a special trick to crack an egg one handed into the pan without breaking the yoke. The evenings were spent by the campfire telling stories or discussing events of the day.  The children enjoyed my attempt at telling scary ghost stories that were made up on the spot, and often were more ridiculous and funny rather than frightening.  The story they particularly liked was the one about the “green slime”.

The Exxon Valdez served another purpose.  When I went off into a surgical residency and Bill went off into the UCLA anesthesia residency, suddenly we had the loss of the income that the private practice of medicine provided.  The boat became a type of currency, when I needed money I sold my half to Bill, and when he was off in the low paying residency, I bought my half back. So, we supplemented our meager incomes by using the boat’s inherent value, despite the oil leak.  Eventually when the boat reached a ripe old age we donated it to charity which of course was tax deductible.

The nurse that lost her job over the cat sterilization incident actually worked for both of us later when we were in practice, the least we could do under the circumstances.  She actually was independently wealthy and didn’t need to work but found it to be something she liked to do and gave her life more meaning.  It so happened she had a request of us that we could not refuse.  She had nine cats she wanted sterilized from her father’s 1,000-acre estate that is now where St. Thomas Aquinas College is. Bill and I sprang into action.  This time we used more suitable space, our office procedure room.  As during our first cat surgery experience, Bill gave the anesthetic and I did the surgery.  Bill used the anesthetic technique of open drop ether.  This is where a gauze mask is placed over the face and ether is dropped onto the gauze.  It is simple to administer, works very quickly, and gives good muscle relaxation.  On the very last cat, Norma, Bills wife, walked into the room with a lit cigarette.  In those days people smoked.  Ether is highly flammable, even explosive.  We could barely contain our horror, but managed to simultaneously scream, “Get Out!!!”  It was a close call, but this time we both escaped death.

We were lucky then, but Bill was not so lucky now.  It all started when, strangely, both of us got a heart problem called Atrial Fibrillation almost simultaneously, mine was more intermittent and needed less treatment.  We would commiserate about it, and often asked each other, “How is your AF today?” Bill had it worse and needed his blood thinned so it would not clot in the heart.  He tried to avoid that treatment for the obvious reason, it increases the risk of bleeding.  I went with him to Cedars Sinai for an attempt to ablate the spot in the heart that caused this heart irregularity, but it failed to work.  He was stuck with taking the drug Warfarin, a chemical that has been around since the late 1940’s.  It was originally invented for rodent control by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, for which it is named and still used for that purpose.

The irony of it all, a drug that is meant to prolong life, didn’t.  I will miss my Best Friend –