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.’”