Trauma Surgeon Jeff Towles Saved Vernon Jordan from 'The Biggest Wound I've Ever Seen'

updated 07/28/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/28/1980 01:00AM

Trauma surgeon Jeff Towles usually hums while he operates. It helps to reduce the tension. But early on May 29, in OR No. 9 at Parkview Memorial Hospital in Fort Wayne, Ind., Towles was in no mood for music.

At 2:05 a.m. a .30-06 caliber bullet from a hunting rifle had ripped a fist-sized hole in the mid back of a man in a local motel parking lot. Towles was sleeping in his one-bedroom apartment when the telephone jolted him awake. "You better get over here," said a black physician. "Vernon Jordan has been shot."

Towles sped three miles to Parkview, where the president of the National Urban League had been X-rayed and hooked up to an IV unit. "It was the biggest gunshot wound I'd ever seen, and I've seen plenty," marvels Towles, 51. "It was a miracle that the shot missed the spinal column. If it was one or two centimeters to the right it would have hit the aorta, and that would have been devastating."

Even so, Jordan needed seven pints of blood. Towles presided over a three-man surgical team that worked four hours, first controlling the critical abdominal bleeding, then cutting away damaged areas of the intestines and removing three large fragments of the slug. Some pieces were left in the thigh and chest, since they were not near a nerve or critical blood vessel. The wound will heal itself with antibiotics. During surgery, maintaining Jordan's blood pressure while he was anesthesized was a crucial problem which fell to anesthesiologist Dr. James Epps. He had listened to Jordan's speech on black voting at the Marriott Inn several hours earlier (Towles missed it because he had burn unit duty at another hospital). "Epps has been under stress before, including Vietnam," Towles said. "You want someone who knows exactly what to do."

Towles was called on to treat Jordan partly because he was black—local officials "were afraid of racial repercussions," Epps admitted. Yet nobody disputed that he was as good a trauma (or injury) surgeon as there is in Fort Wayne. The 6'3", 215-pound Towles proved to be as adroit handling reporters after the operation. "He fussed and fumed about talking to the press but he did a beautiful job," one hospital executive said.

"I was appalled that the violence had happened in this town," Towles says. "It isn't the kind of place where they burn a cross on your lawn." Towles has practiced in Fort Wayne (pop. 182,000) for 16 years. He's a coalminer's son from Pike County, Ky., where his mother helped support the family by keeping house for a white doctor who lured Jeffrey and his sister, now a nurse, into medicine. "When I helped clean his office," Towles recalls, "I read his medical books."

After West Virginia State College, Towles served as an artillery lieutenant in Korea, then dug coal in Pike County to pay for a master's degree at the University of Kentucky. He graduated from the University of Louisville School of Medicine in 1958. In Fort Wayne, Towles has involved himself in community racial issues. He opposed both closing of inner-city elementary schools and busing young black children to white neighborhoods.

Towles, who is divorced, works a 75-hour week, but can always be reached by his three daughters on his pocket radio page. (Aged 10 to 21, they live with their mother.) His practice is general surgery, and he prefers appendectomies to gunshot wounds, which seem to happen to people who don't always pay their bills.

Towles has kept in close touch with his distinguished patient's progress. On June 12 he accompanied Jordan to New York Hospital, where he is still being treated for infection. The two men still chat by telephone.

"Jeff Towles saved my life," says Jordan. "He is a tremendously gifted doctor who really cares about people and I will be eternally thankful he was there when I went into the operating room."

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