Dr. McClenahan’s memoir, “G.P.”

by Clark Groome

From the 1940s through the 1970s, William U. McClenahan M.D. was one of the busiest, most respected and most beloved doctors in Chestnut Hill.

He practiced at a time when doctors made house calls. He was always available. He was also a really fine physician. “Dr. Bill,” as many called him, established the first hospital intensive care unit in the United States.

Bill McClenahan has been gone for many years now, but an item on the June 18 edition of “The NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams” brought him to mind.

The story was about a 15-year-old heart transplant patient at the University of Maryland Medical Center who was having a tough time recuperating from his surgery.

“He was critically sick,” his cardiologist reported. But thanks to a medical center chaplain, the idea of letting the young man’s chocolate Lab come for a visit proved to be a tremendous help in the healing process. The kid’s blood pressure improved and he was much happier, according to the NBC report. Currently he’s home and doing very well.

There is a program called “Faithful Friends” that is being used in similar cases in hospitals nationwide. Over the past few years, dogs have been used to cheer up elderly folks in nursing homes and people recovering from tragedies such as the Newtown, Conn., massacre last December.

These programs have seemed to blossom recently and look to be, for many, a newly discovered way to bring healing to those in need of special care and the unqualified love that cherished pets, especially dogs, show their human companions.

It’s a new approach, right?

Not so fast.

In 1974 after recovering from a serious heart attack, Dr. Bill published a delightful memoir entitled “G.P.”

His stories are filled with the common sense, compassion and humor that made him such a special person.

So when I saw the report on NBC it set off a bell. His Chapter 16, “Men, Women, and Dogs,” begins this way:

“When my daughter Beth was eleven, she entered the Chestnut Hill Hospital for an appendectomy. All by herself, on the second floor, she was a little slow to get well and felt at odds with the world, as most adolescents do at a time like that. One night after supper it occurred to me that it would do Beth a lot of good to see her dog, Nick, to whom she was greatly attached. I put Nick in a laundry bag, loaded him into my car, and told him to lie very still.

“At the hospital I put the bag over my shoulder and ambled through the Emergency Ward. There were five or six people in the elevator all rather startled when Nick began to struggle and bark, but I just looked at the floor with the most serious expression I could put on my face. ‘Hit and run driver,’ I said. ‘On our way to the operating room.’ Everyone stepped aside to let me off first.

“In Beth’s room, I unloaded Nick, and you never saw such joy in a child’s face. Or a dog’s! After a long love session, I opened the door and Nick trotted out ahead of me and down the stairs. We passed a cop in the Emergency Ward, who looked surprised, and I shrugged and said that stray dogs have become a problem all over the city. I was lucky that night, though. The night supervisor was a strict old drink of vinegar, and she would have made it pretty hot for me if I had been caught.”

This occurred in the 1950s. Fifty years or so later what Chestnut Hill’s Bill McClenahan knew instinctively has become a hugely popular approach to patient care. In so many ways, the instinct of the healer, which Dr. Bill practiced so magnificently, while benefiting from extraordinary scientific and technical advances, hasn’t really changed all that much since he took Nick to visit Beth more than 50 years ago.