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

The HUP surgeon showed us what heroism really looks like

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.”