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X-Ray air

Saratogan honored in alma mater’s publication for time spent winging across the west to provide radiological services in areas of need

 

Photo by Andrea E. Morris

“Humanitarian? I don’t know. I guess.” That was local resident Bill Ward, remembering how he reacted to being featured as one of six doctors and dentists “reaching out to people in need in their communities,” by Odyssey, the quarterly magazine of the University of Maryland’s (UM) College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences.

Ward graduated from UM in 1954 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and pre-medical studies. He wasn’t bound to stay “back East” long, however: although he attended high school in suburban Maryland, Ward’s childhood was spent in Colorado, and the West beckoned.

A Field Comes of Age

After medical school, Ward did his internship and residency at the University of Colorado where he specialized in the nascent field of radiology, or the use of radioactive materials in diagnosing and treating illnesses and injuries.

“In my group (in medical school), almost all of us did general radiology. That’s how we were trained–we did it all,” Ward said of that time. He described coming up in an era where broadly-trained physicians experimented with clunky first-generation machines and wore red sunglasses to read fluoroscopy results.

That sort of medical training is barely recognizable to today’s breed of highly-specialized physicians acclimated to high-precision diagnostic tools, Ward said. While he was in school, “nuclear medicine,” or using radioactive dyes and injections to map out bodily functions, was also just developing. “(At the time) I did not give nuclear medicine much hope, because we were using old navy sonar, and if we could find a body (with it) we thought we were good,” he said with a dry chuckle.

Ward marveled at how modern equipment can detect pinpoint lesions and produce crisp, clear images. “It was pretty crude when things started out, but things have come a long ways. I was lucky to see the whole works (over the course of my practice),” Ward said.

Early Days of Cowboy Medicine

That practice started in Laramie, in 1962, and would span more than three decades. When Ward first set-up shop, there were only seven other radiologists in the state, with three in Cheyenne, three in Casper and one in Cody. One of Ward’s radiology professors had practiced out of Grand Junction, Colorado, and accessed remote hospitals and patients by flying a bush plane. Ward decided to get his pilot’s license as well.

As described by Ward, the decision to become a flying doctor was born more of pragmatism than audacity. “I thought that it sure would be a lot faster to get around in an airplane, yes,” he said.

Before his retirement, Ward would log more than 12,000 hours shuttling between assignments in his Beechcraft Bonanza, but things started out a little slow in the early sixties. “The hospitals hadn’t had radiology service (before I came). The more service I gave them, the busier I got,” he explained.

As more hospital administrators and other doctors started to learn about Ward’s practice, the requests started pouring in. Soon, he was commuting to eight different hospitals weekly or even daily. His stops included hospitals in Rawlins, Rock Springs, Lander and Laramie in Wyoming, Craig, Steamboat Springs and Kremmling in Colorado and even the facility in Vernal, Utah. “I had a lot of long days, but I was able to do it,” he said of the time commitment.

An Ill-Fated Move

In 1976, Ward sold his practice in Laramie and moved to Naples, Florida to be closer to his parents. The move lasted all of three days. From his youth, Ward had remembered Naples as “a sleepy little cow town,” but when he returned in the seventies, he said he found a metropolis. “(Ward’s wife) Carol and I turned around and came right back,” he said.

Taxiing into Torrington

Back in the Cowboy State, Ward set up another practice, in Torrington this time. Soon enough, he was back to making aerial rounds, servicing hospitals in Torrington, Wheatland, Douglas and Lusk, Wyoming, as well as facilities in Scotts Bluff, Rushville, Chadron, Alliance and Crawford, Nebraska. By leaving the house at four in the morning, “I could do a long circuit (of all those hospitals) in one day,” Ward said.

At each airport, Ward said he kept a junker car that he would drive to the hospital after landing. “I didn’t have a car at Crawford (though) because I had to land in a hayfield and then somebody picked me up and took me to the hospital,” he said.

Ward was dismissive of any attempts to suss out tails of derring-do during his rounds. Asked if he ever faced any frightening weather or fraught landings, all Ward said was “Eventually I had to come down through the clouds, and navigational aids weren’t as prevalent (then) as they are now.” Ward did allow that he would sometimes have to fly to an emergency in the dead of night, but said those instances were rare.

Take it Easy… Or Else!

Ward operated his practice in Torrington until 1995, when he was nudged toward retirement. “My wife said, you’re either going to quit or you’re going to die. So I quit,” Ward recounted. After so much time in the cockpit, Ward said, “I was actually tired of flying. So I just didn’t renew any of my licenses–pilot, medical, narcotics.” It would be years before he even set foot in a plane again–an abrupt shift from flying thousands of miles per a week.

Since his retirement, Ward has donated ranch lands and art works to charitable remainder trusts run by the University of Wyoming (UW) Foundation and the University of Colorado Medical Foundation. The proceeds from these donations will be used to fund scholarships and the UW cross country ski team. Ostensibly, this charitable giving led Odyssey to profile Ward, but he sees more behind his selection.

“A radiologist back in Maryland, or New York, or New Jersey, or Pennsylvania or Virginia, they usually practice in one place: one hospital; one clinic; one office. Here I was covering a big area,” he said. Serving tough, sparsely-populated back-country hospitals and clinics made Ward something of an exotic specimen among his colleagues, he suggested.

In the summer, Ward and his wife enjoy golfing, and they’ve managed to continue alpine skiing well into retirement, too. “We don’t do much traveling now at all since I quit working,” he said.

“It seems like a lot of physicians do learn how to fly. Whether they use it like I did in my practice–probably not,” Ward concluded. The Winged Rocky Mountain Radiologist appears to be an exotic specimen, indeed.

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