Photo: Courtesy Stanford Healthcare

Doctoring Students, He Saw It All

John Dorman reflects on 44 years as a campus physician.

By Sam Scott

It’s been 44 years since John Dorman passed up more lucrative opportunities to take an $18,000-a-year job tending Stanford students. Five Stanford presidents and thousands of sick undergraduates later, the doctor is finally hanging up his stethoscope. He officially retires on September 1, so we asked him for a few highlights.

A circuitous route to the Farm

The son and grandson of obstetricians, Dorman looked for a different path (not least because his dad was constantly away during the night, delivering babies). After graduating from Harvard Medical School and interning in internal medicine, he pursued a psychiatry residency but left after a year. “I had a great deal of difficulty leaving my work at work,” he says. He then took a job through the U.S. Public Health Service at a hospital in Staten Island that involved obstetrics and gynecology; he helped deliver about 60 babies, compared with his father’s 9,000. Finally, he applied for a pediatric residency in Boston, where he discovered a passion for adolescent medicine. “In retrospect, it was all perfect training for the kind of stuff I would see [at Stanford], even though I wasn’t intentionally doing it that way.”

Why ‘Layla’ had him on his knees

One of the early perks of working as a doctor at Stanford was staffing events like football games, including Super Bowl XIX, and concerts at Frost Amphitheater, at the time a frequent stop for stars such as Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie. Typically, the assignments featured little drama. An exception was Eric Clapton’s sold-out 1975 show, which caused such a frenzy that officials opened the gates to keep fans from tearing down the fences, Dorman recalls. Some 10,000 people attended, at least one of whom is unlikely to remember the experience: “I have this distinct memory that when Clapton was playing ‘Layla’ I was somewhere behind some bushes trying to get a totally intoxicated woman to at least respond to me.”

The arrival of AIDS

In the early ’80s, Dorman had a patient who he first suspected had appendicitis, though further examination pointed to an infection linked to AIDS. At the time, there was no test for HIV, nor was its transmission understood. Dorman had to put on a mask, a hooded gown and gloves to visit the student. “I recall thinking this is not the time that he needs to be isolated — he needs to have people around him,” Dorman wrote in an article in the Stanford Daily in 1986. “I tried to visit him every day.” The student recovered, and Dorman kept him as a private patient after graduation. Eventually the young man moved back home where his health declined rapidly. “Since he looked so well when I last saw him, I’m not sure that I ever really believed, on an emotional level, that he had AIDS until I learned that he was dead,” Dorman says.

A particularly touching case

Dorman attended the weddings of four Stanford patients over the years. One of the couples had an especially memorable beginning. A female patient of his suffered a serious autoimmune disease that left her for a time on a ventilator. Her boyfriend proposed to her in her hospital bed. It reminded Dorman of his own parents’ courtship, during which his mother was struck by viral encephalitis shortly before she and Dorman’s father were to be married. Undaunted, they were wed in a civil ceremony before she was re-hospitalized. Dorman shared the story with his Stanford patient and her fiancé. “They loved it.”

First daughters of Stanford

Dorman has three children, the youngest of whom, Lydia (now Lydia Smith), ’99, was a contemporary of Chelsea Clinton, ’01, who as “first daughter” required a campus plan for instant medical attention should such a need arise. Dorman’s daughter wasn’t shy about using her family connection for similar access for sick friends. “The saying with the nurses at the time was there are two people on campus who can get care anytime they want,” he says. “One is Chelsea Clinton, and the other is Lydia Dorman.”

Dr. Dorman with his family at his 50th wedding anniversary party. (Photo: Courtesy Dorman Family)

Why he did it

A lot of doctors view campus health work as just dealing with sprains, sniffles and sore throats, Dorman says. And it’s true that the job requires an abundance of patience for dealing with students — freshmen, in particular — who call in the middle of the night with minor maladies. “But you need to know, in that forest of people coming in, how to pick out the ones who need more help,” he says. One of the lessons he gathered over the years was to listen to what wasn’t said as much as what was. His message to parents: “I tried to treat their kids as my own kids.” •

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