Late one night during my senior year of residency at the University of Pennsylvania (1959-1960), I had to go to the morgue to remove a pair of donated eyes. I brought the eyes in sterile jars to the eye ward and began searching for the list of patients waiting to have corneal transplants.
Unable to find a list, I had two choices: I could send the eyes to the eye bank, which was located at Wills Eye Hospital (the competition) and risk the wrath of the professor the next day, or I could call the professor -- department head Harold G. Scheie, MD, -- at home and risk his wrath for waking him late at night. I chose the latter.
“Dr. Scheie,” I began when he answered the phone, “This is George Kurz. I’m on the eye ward with two postmortem eyes that I’ve just removed. Would you like me to send them to the eye bank or do you have a list of patients waiting for transplants?” If he didn’t have the actual list at home, at least I thought he could tell me where to look for it on the ward. I was prepared to call the first two names on the list and alert them to come to the hospital first thing in the morning, ready for surgery. But there was no response. Not a sound at the other end of the line, except Dr. Scheie’s heavy breathing.
Dr. Scheie was well known for his ability to survive on four to five hours of sleep a night. He went to bed early, before midnight, but was up long before dawn to review his ophthalmology journals and the like. What I didn’t know was what a sound sleeper he was during those few hours.
“Dr. Scheie, do you know where the transplant list is?” I persisted. Again, no response. He must have fallen back to sleep before I had finished the second sentence. “Dr. Scheie! Dr. Scheie!” I called.
Still no response. I pictured him there, sound asleep with the phone off the hook. If I hung up and tried again, his line was going to be busy. I was stuck. “Dr. Scheie! Dr. Scheie!” I yelled a few more times, but to no avail. I gave up, hung up the phone, and put the eyes away in the ward refrigerator.
The next morning was sure to bring a “Why didn’t you...,” but I couldn’t think of anything else to do. As usual, Dr. Scheie appeared on the ward at 7 a.m. the following morning. With some trepidation, I told him about the eyes in the refrigerator. He made an immediate decision to send them to the eye bank. Either there was no waiting list or his schedule was so full that day that he couldn’t possibly fit in a corneal transplant or two.
He gave not the slightest hint of recalling my phone call during the night.