Sunday, July 13, 2008
William T. Close, M.D.
A country doctor from Connecticut by way of Africa, William T. Close, M.D. came to my hometown of Big Piney, Wyoming, with his wife in 1977 to establish a rural medical practice.
"Rural" doesn't quite describe it. For much of my childhood, Big Piney didn't even have a doctor, unless you count Dr. Burgoon, who was always over playing cards across town and had a dubious medical license. The closest small hospitals were 90 miles away in Jackson or 120 miles away in Evanston, and the closest medical centers of any significance for serious illnesses and injuries were four hours away in Salt Lake City.
Dr. Close had left Africa in 1977 and settled in Big Piney while I was a state away attending college at BYU, ostensibly "to retire," as we understood it, but it was clear he planned to do anything but. He changed the landscape of a community.
More importantly, he arrived just in time to be on the scene when my father, and our family, needed him most, as a persistent backache in early 1979 led my otherwise healthy, athletic 48-year-old father who worked supervising oil fields for a small independent oil and gas company to see a doctor. Dr. Close, in his wisdom, referred my father to a surgeon in Salt Lake City, Dr. Lawrence Stevens, and in the whirlwind that ensued, my father had surgery to remove tumors from his abdomen and spine which were later diagnosed as the progression of malignant melanoma.
We were only about ninety days from diagnosis to my father's untimely death from the disease, a progressive nightmare that enveloped our entire family and held my father in the chains of unspeakable pain and suffering, but Dr. Close was there, in Big Piney, to offer sensitive, appropriate palliative care during the times my father wasn't in Salt Lake City being treated or hospitalized at LDS Hospital. He did the unheard of. He made house calls. Sometimes he brought his daughter, visiting from out of town, with him.
I hadn't had a lot of personal contact with Dr. Close myself prior to that, as I was most of the time away at school, but I do recall a time I went to see him over Christmas break with a persistent bronchitis. He talked to me about stress, about trying to do too much, about burning the candle at both ends, an easy trap of the college student, and then told me about his daughter, and how in many ways she was the same way, and I reminded him of her.
It would be five more years before Glenn Close was a household name, following her performances in "The World According to Garp" and "The Big Chill." We didn't know much about Dr. Close's daughter then, maybe that she was an actress, but once her image became emblazoned across the screen and the world consciousness in roles like that of Michael Douglas' stalker in "Fatal Attraction," no one would soon forget.
In 1988, taken with the local community that her parents had embraced, Glenn Close made a documentary for the BBC and HBO Films, "Do You Mean There Are Still Real Cowboys?" The film, narrated by Robert Redford, who also has connections to Big Piney (an alternate version was narrated by Glenn Close), explores the lives of several ranching families in Big Piney and the apparent disappearance of the American cowboy from the national stage. It subsquently ran on television as part of the PBS series, "The American Experience."
Dr. Close still practices medicine in Big Piney, where he lives with his wife, Bettine, and still continues to look after the elderly, the infirm, and the dying. Last I heard, his daughter is building a home there. He hasn't yet retired, and it's doubtful he ever full will. He's been honored by many over the years for his dedication to practicing rural medicine in an area of the world particularly challenged by geography and climate, and has published a number of books on his life and experiences (his book, "A Doctor's Life," sits on the nightstand in a guest bedroom at my cottage). He is well regarded as a local citizen and author, and a citizen of the planet, someone who has made a difference.
William Taliaferro Close.