The Best Philadelphian 2009: Dr. John Pryor, 1966-2008

The HUP surgeon showed us what heroism really looks like

LAST CHRISTMAS DAY, John Pryor should have been where he belonged — at home in Moorestown, with his wife and three little kids. He should have been watching those kids open presents, laughing at their excitement, warning them not to eat too many chocolate Santas. Or maybe, John Pryor being John Pryor, he should have been doing his job, as a trauma surgeon in the emergency room at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, so some other doctor could be at home with family instead.

But where he was, at the age of 42, was in Mosul, Iraq, getting blown apart by a mortar shell. And now he’s dead, and Christmas, for those who knew and loved him — and just about everyone who knew John Pryor loved him — will never be the same.

“He was a force of nature,” says his old college roommate at SUNY Binghamton, Todd Kesselman. “A great man, a great friend, a great doctor.”

“A genius,” says Bill Schwab, Pryor’s boss at HUP.

“He wanted to be seen as just an average Joe,” says Leslie Rice, a nurse who served beside him in Iraq. “But he wasn’t an average Joe.”

What he was was complicated: a devoted husband who joined the Army Reserve at age 38 when he learned that soldiers in Iraq were dying because of a lack of qualified trauma surgeons. A loving dad who left his kids behind for not one, but two tours of duty. A gifted mentor who was studying Arabic so he could talk to the Iraqi children he treated. A dedicated doctor who used what he’d learned caring for young men blasted full of holes in Philly’s street wars to save American soldiers.

It was those soldiers — the relentless loss of their lives — that sent him on a new mission in Philly. He saw, with rare clarity, that the war on our city’s streets, the one that kept his trauma unit at HUP frantically tying off veins and arteries, rebooting hearts, pouring in new blood, was just as relentless. But it could be stopped. Philadelphia could put an end to the gang-and-drug violence so common that otherwise caring people are numb to it. All we lacked was the will.

He sought to make his rage contagious, perform a fury transfusion on the entire city. He died before he could. The legacy he leaves is in our hands.

HE WAS A doctor, a surgeon, a saver of lives in HUP’s operating rooms, then in the tented, improvised, inadequate ORs of Mosul and Abu Ghraib. And while his cause was righteous, he never was. He really was a regular guy — a joker, a prankster, a party animal, the kid at college whose dorm room everybody gravitated to. In fact, he had such a good time at Binghamton that he didn’t have the grades to get into a U.S. med school. So he enrolled at St. George’s on the island of Grenada, and did well enough to be admitted later to SUNY Buffalo’s med school, where he came into his own. “So many people, in their early life, focus on a single thing — academic achievement,” says Schwab, who hired Pryor in 1999. “John was straightforward about this. He told me, ‘For me, college was about the camaraderie.’”

He liked excitement, liked to feel life’s rush. He joined an ambulance corps at 17, and became a certified emergency medical technician at 18. In college, he kept on as an EMT. And while the kids who hoped ambulance experience would look good on their med-school apps rode with the college crew (which mostly took drunken students to have their stomachs pumped), Pryor rode the real-world version, out in the city at large.

On 9/11, when he saw the first Tower fall on a TV at HUP, he packed a bag of surgical supplies, drove to New York, talked his way through locked-down tunnels into Manhattan, and made it all the way to Ground Zero. To his chagrin, he found no one to help, only dust and darkness and a silence so deafening “you could actually hear your ears ring.”

John Pryor was a writer. What he saw on 9/11 and the days that followed, what he observed in West Philly and Iraq, he set down in words, and he was good enough at it that his pieces ran in the Inquirer and Washington Post. They are infused with humor and wonder and anger — more and more anger, toward the end. Because even in the midst of working like hell to save lives and be a good husband and father and teacher, Pryor found a cause he couldn’t stay away from, couldn’t push off into a corner and ignore. He wrote about it for the Post:

More young men are killed each day on the streets of America than on the worst days of carnage and loss in Iraq. There is a war at home raging every day, filling our trauma centers with so many wounded children that it sometimes makes Baghdad seem like a quiet city in Iowa.

HUP has one of the busiest trauma centers in the state for firearms injuries. West Philly suffers from “a lot of recidivism, a lot of people shot multiple times,” says Mary Kate FitzPatrick, lead nurse in the trauma unit when Pryor arrived at Penn to do his fellowship there. What could be more difficult for a surgeon than to bring a patient back from the dead, only to have him show up again, shot full of lead? Yet Pryor kept on healing. And … not healing. Trauma surgery is about assessing injuries, deciding who gets moved to the front of the line in a flood of mass casualties. That’s when it’s not as easy as saying, “You, and then you, then you,” like assigning numbers at the deli counter. Those who come fourth or sixth can’t just wait a little longer. “They’re going to die because you can’t get to them,” Bill Schwab, who served 12 years in the Navy, says bluntly. “You have to say, ‘The one I can most likely save is that one.’ And you know the other kids are going to die.”
This is what John Pryor learned from the streets of Philadelphia — that he had the gift of life, and with it, the responsibility for death. He was willing to do this — to play God, to be God — because someone has to. He did it because you and I can’t.

So the gang wars and street violence, because they taught Pryor how to prioritize, how to judge in an instant not a patient’s worthiness, but simply his injuries, saved soldiers in Iraq. Maybe that’s why Pryor began to look differently at those “wasted” inner-city lives we don’t even bother to read about in the newspaper anymore, the drug dealers and pimps and thugs who get stabbed, gunned down, Swiss-cheesed in barrages of bullets. Not our kind of people. Other. Not deserving of our empathy or time.

But they were the same to Pryor. The wounds he was treating — the flesh he sliced through, the shattered bones, the blood he struggled to stanch — was the same in the street thugs as in the soldiers. The mothers who sobbed when he couldn’t save their sons — he knew their grief.

He thought we should, too. He was sure that if we did, we would rise up as he had, in wrath and indignation, and end the war in our city’s streets. He wrote in the Post about his work at HUP:

I am on call on Wednesday night. The statistics indicate that then I will once again walk with the chaplain to a small room off the emergency room. I will open a heavy brown door and make eye contact with … a mother, perhaps a father or grandmother. They will look at me with tears welling up … and lean forward while watching my lips, bracing for news about their loved one. I will remain standing and reach out to hold the mother’s hand. My announcement will be short and firm, the intonation polished from years of practice. The words will be simple for me to say, but sharp as a sword for them to hear: “I am sorry, your son has died.”

Life sucks, we say. I hate my job, we say. How would you like to do Pryor’s — to tell tearful moms their sons are dead? To want like hell to save every grievously maimed soldier who comes to you, even though you know you can’t? “Losing these kids here in Iraq rips a hole through my soul so large that it is hard for me to continue breathing,” he wrote after his first tour of duty.

And then he reupped.  

It’s hard to be a hero. It’s harder to be married to one; ask John Pryor’s widow. But we need heroes, the ones with passion and fury who will leave behind families they love, and all the comforts of home, because they see a Truth, and are driven by their moral compasses to serve it. We need them to light the light, to hold it up and lead the way through the darkness. We need them because without John Pryors, the world would be full of people like us. And that’s not good enough.  

Around the Web

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.