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

The HUP surgeon showed us what heroism really looks like

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.