Dr. Grant V. Rodkey walks in the door of the main building at the VA Medical Center in West Roxbury every workday morning at 8 o’clock sharp. He wears shiny patent leather shoes, navy blue pants, an oxford shirt, and a navy blue tie. His white hair is neatly shaped. His hands are soft, as if he had just taken off latex gloves.
It is a seemingly routine act. Except that Rodkey is 96 years old, and has seen everything from the implementation of penicillin and the invention of the polio vaccine to the most recent HIV cure in newborn babies. But the biggest change he has noticed is with people.
“It’s the greatest sin of the world,” the Watertown resident said. “Too much I, I, I.”
During a recent interview he spent more time talking about changes in attitudes and American culture than changes in medicine. He looks to World War II to contrast current American mind-sets.
“Everybody in the country participated and supported,” Rodkey said. “There’s been nothing like that since; it’s a far cry from that today, in the character of the people.”
But Rodkey is far from a grumpy old man. He continually emphasizes the reason he loves to come to work every day — the people.
“When I get discouraged, I think to myself, really there are so many wonderful young people who are out there every day working hard, learning things, but you never hear about them,” he said. “They’re not on police blotters, they are not in jail, they are not in the newspaper, but there are more of them in the world than ever before.”
Rodkey was born in 1917 in the high plains of Colorado to high school sweethearts, Helen and Joseph Verne Rodkey. He was the first of seven children.
At 3 years old, Rodkey was given a saddle horse. By age 4, he was herding cattle, and by 6 he was driving a two-horse team; by 8, a four-horse team; and by 10, a Fordson tractor.
“I’ve been in the workforce for most of that century,” Rodkey said with a chuckle from deep within his chest.
During the 1934-1935 school year, Rodkey attended the University of Idaho School of Education, with $35 to his name. He never bought a book, and always had to study in the library.
“The only study I got was walking back and forth about three miles to the college library at night, ’cause I had no books,” Rodkey said.
His father was seriously injured while Rodkey was home that summer in Washington, where his family had moved after he graduated high school. He took a year off from college to help support the family.
Rodkey finished his undergraduate education as a premed major from 1936 to 1939 at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., and was then accepted into Harvard Medical School, where he eventually chose surgery as his specialty.
‘It’s the greatest sin of the world. Too much I, I, I.’
Rodkey said he received the highest score on the medical entrance test the year he took it.
He was conscripted into the military, and served in the Army Reserve from 1942 to 1945. In 1945, he was called to active duty and was shipped to China.
He held a variety of jobs leading up to being a surgeon. Rodkey worked as an orderly at a Civilian Conservation Corps hospital, as a barber, in his college’s student aid office, at New England Deaconess Hospital, and in Massachusetts General Hospital’s anesthesia department. He was also a surgeon in the Army Reserve and at Mass. General, and now serves as the associate chief of surgery for the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Boston Healthcare System, which comprises three medical centers and six outpatient clinics.
“It is a true American story,” Dr. Kamal Itani, chief of surgery at the VA’s regional system, said about Rodkey, whom he has known since 2003. “It’s an amazing achievement for a farmer from Colorado becoming one of the surgical legends in Boston and in the United States.”
Rodkey has taught at Tufts, Harvard, and Boston University. He has established two scholarships in his name. He was the Massachusetts delegate for the American Medical Association, and is still involved in the Massachusetts Medical Society.
“He is so humble,” said Diane Keefe, a Boston VA spokeswoman who has worked with Rodkey throughout her 18 years at the agency. “It is hard for him to talk about himself.”
Rodkey enjoyed talking about Dr. Arthur W. Allen, who was the chief surgeon at Mass. General. Rodkey worked with Allen until his death in 1958, and considers him to be the greatest surgeon of his lifetime. Allen’s picture sits on a bookcase in Rodkey’s office at the VA.
Rodkey now spends most of his day consulting with other VA doctors, since he does not see patients anymore. But his mere presence makes an impact around the office.
“The first time I met him in 2003,” Itani said, “Dr. Rodkey was the chief of general surgery at that time at VA Boston. I was very surprised to see a very senior person in charge of the whole general surgery program, but immediately I was stricken by his insight, knowledge, and great care he had taken in educating the medical students.”
Itani has been collecting “Rodkey’s aphorisms,” a list of medical and life phrases he frequently uses, and has a sample framed on the wall of a conference room.
A few of the aphorisms are related to medicine, such as “do not look at the surface of the wound,” and “the body loves to be cut and to heal crossways.”
The former, according to Itani’s translation, means to look into the tissues and see important structures before you cut them. The latter can be explained as respecting the Langer lines, which are guides to where it is best for a surgeon to make a cut or an incision to limit scarring.
The nonmedical sayings include, “You can’t learn nobody nuthin,’ ” meaning the educational process requires effort from both parties, and “There is no one whom you will ever meet whom you cannot — and should not — learn something from,” which Rodkey frequently mentions.
His happiest moments, Rodkey said, involved the adoption of his two children. After five years of providing evidence that he and wife Dorothea would be worthy parents, finally, one day they went to the courthouse in Spokane, where a judge began to question them.
“I couldn’t understand for a bit what he was talking about,” Rodkey said. “His line of questioning was, ‘Who are these wonderful people that have come here to give this child a home? I want to know more about them.’ ”
Tears came to Rodkey’s eyes as he described the moment when the judge finally said yes.
Rodkey has suffered the loss of his father, mother, several siblings, his daughter, and his first wife, Dorothea. He married Suzanne Seckel, his longtime secretary, three years ago, and he still sees his brother, two sisters, son, and three grandchildren whenever he can.
Family seems to be everything to Rodkey.
“So now there are these three,” he said, offering another favorite aphorism: “Faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these is love — love is eternal.”
Rodkey is not afraid to admit that he has had his disagreements during his 96 years. He has found one way to cope.
“Want to know the best way to win a fight?” he said with a grin. “Ya outlive ’em.”Megan Turchi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.