I’m William Cooper. I am a teacher. I am a heart surgeon. I am a speaker. I am an army veteran. But more importantly, I am a person.
I’ll tell you, it’s a pretty scary experience. I’d never been shot at intentionally in my life until I got there. It’s real when you get on the helicopter in the middle of the night, and it’s Christmas Eve 2003. You’re flying and it’s just you and the pilot, co-pilot and a gunner. There’s four people on this helicopter, and the gunner is in the back with you and he tells you to keep your head down because occasionally we get small arms fire as we’re flying across the desert.
All of a sudden you start hearing this ping, ping, ping, ping, ping, and I’m like, “What is that?” They’re shooting at us, shooting at the helicopter. And we made it. You know, of course. But that experience, not just that one, but the entire experience of being in that war, really gave me a tremendous amount of perspective on life. And because, of course, you know, I felt oftentimes my own life was in jeopardy and I’d never felt that way before. At any moment like a propelled grenade or a mortar round could fall on our tent and I’d be dead.
So when you start talking about fear of death, it really isn’t [a fear], not anymore. I think the vast majority of people want health, happiness, the ability to enjoy this life that we’ve been given.
I did over a hundred procedures in Iraq, over another hundred procedures or so in Afghanistan. It’s all-day surgery, caring for injured soldiers on the battlefield. And reinforcing that appreciation, if you will, for life.
When I came back from Iraq...people would ask me, “What was it like?” And all I would say is four words: It was just crazy.
It’s another one of those defining moments for me. I have a very difficult time and probably suffer from a low level of post-traumatic stress. When I came back from Iraq in expressing my feelings about it, people would ask me, “What was it like?” And all I would say is four words: It was just crazy. That was all I could say. I mean, I really couldn’t talk in detail about it and I didn’t want to. I was frustrated by that because I wanted to be able to express and talk about it in the way that I’m talking about it right now, but I really couldn’t do that at that time.
I grew up in a small town in southern Missouri called Hayti. And as you can imagine, growing up in a small town in the early 1980s, that sort of era, gangster rap was being cool and drug dealing and all that kind of stuff was having a tremendous amount of influence. My dad said, “Well, hey, you know you really should consider going into the army reserve.” And I said, you know, maybe I will. It will give me something to do in the summer besides come under the influence of negative forces in the community.
I come from a family of eight children and two loving parents. And as I sit here today, I’m one of only three kids that are still alive, and my father. My mom and five of my siblings all died prematurely of various healthcare conditions. My mom – who was the first of my family to pass on – came down with pancreatic cancer at the very young age of 46. I was 14 years old at that time. And I will say that having gone through that experience is really what solidified my curiosity and my desire to want to enter into healthcare. It’s something that in fact fuels my passion for it, not just cardiovascular health but healthcare in general.
My mom and five of my siblings all died prematurely of various healthcare conditions. Having gone through that experience is really what solidified my curiosity and my desire to want to enter into healthcare.
I used to be very, very sad seeking meaning, but I’ve developed a very deep spiritual sort of understanding. I don’t really see it as death, I see it as a continuum of life. Coping is not really even a way to sort of describe it, it’s more of just: This is my life, this is the life of my two remaining siblings and my father who is still alive. And so this is our life, this is the hand that we’ve been dealt.
REFLECTING ON EXPERIENCES
For doctors, there’s an expectation that you are invincible. And sometimes we overplay it, and I think that’s not good because we sometimes see doctors do that in a way that could be detrimental, not just to themselves but to their patients. Doctors are depressed; I mean they have one of the highest rates of depression in the country .
Having performed over 7000 surgeries, I think one of the greatest responsibilities that anyone could ever have is someone else’s life be put in your hands, and have the great responsibility of being able to preserve that life, to improve that life, or to end that life. I think preparedness is very important.
I think one of the greatest responsibilities that anyone could ever have is someone else’s life be put in your hands.
Sometimes it’s sad when someone dies, but I never beat myself up about that because I know that I prepare and I’ve done all that I can to try to interrupt that process of dying. On the contrary, when you help someone live, I’m very humbled by that, very humbled. Because I don’t see it as it’s me, I see it as: It’s my team. It’s all of the systems working in concert together to make the outcome.
I’m often surprised at how the vast majority of people—regardless of your education, your socio-economic status, etc.—how uninformed they can be and the misconceptions about health in general. That’s one aspect of my job that I’m really after, it’s sort of my mission. As physicians we’ve got to be willing to talk to people, we’ve got to be willing to be honest and open when we talk to people about health and healthcare.