“A good physician treats the disease, the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.”
This quote, which has been attributed to many sources, perfectly describes Dr. Robert Tenery of Dallas, Texas. He passed away at the age of 77 on February 3, 2020.
For 46 years, he practiced ophthalmology at Medical City Hospital. This writer was his patient for 39 of those years — had Tenery been well enough to make an appointment with me earlier this year, the only time he ever cancelled a session, it would have been an even 40 year relationship.
In his absorbing autobiography, Dr. Mayo’s Boy: A Century of American Medicine, Tenery summed up his approach to the practice of medicine this way: “The essence of what it means to be a physician, a true physician, is part science and part art. The science comes from medical school and continuing years of training. The art, that sense of conviction and compassion, comes from within and is learned at the bedside from patients and past physicians to whom this noble profession was more than their job, medicine was their calling.”
Both Tenery’s father and grandfather had been physicians — his grandfather, Dr. W.C. Tenery, built the first hospital in the family’s hometown of Waxahachie, Texas in 1914.
Dr. Mayo’s Boy is full of vivid episodes that trace his professional development, but none more telling than the conversation he had with his dying father, the Dr. Mayo in the book’s title: “Being a patient is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Tenery’s father said. “Maybe it’s because we both know that doctors can’t always make everything right, but you still have to trust them…never betray your patient’s trust.”
That final message carried Robert Tenery through his professional life. I can provide firsthand testament to that.
When I initially saw him, in 1980, it took a professional referral from a physician to obtain an appointment: Tenery’s practice was essentially closed to new patients because he was so busy.
Despite having a full waiting room, Tenery discussed my history with me as though he had nothing else planned for the day. I then went through a series of tests and he determined I was in the early stages of glaucoma — a diagnosis which others had previously missed.
Since knowledge about glaucoma was still in development, he was especially interested in my family history. When I informed him that my mother — who lived in another state — was having problems with her vision, he told me that the next time she came to visit, he would examine her for free. Tenery was conducting some informal research and my mother’s condition would be helpful to his data.
When my mother came to town, Tenery saw her at no charge and diagnosed her glaucoma. He developed a treatment plan for her — to the day she passed, my mother swore that Tenery had saved her sight. He saved mine as well.
Despite a demanding practice, Tenery was very active in his profession — he was Chief of Surgery and eventually Chief of Staff at Medical City; he was President of the Dallas County Medical Society and President of the Texas Medical Association. He was a clinical professor of Ophthalmology at UT Southwestern Medical School.
Tenery was very concerned about the future of medicine — concerned enough to write a book titled, “Bedside Manners,” a topic he was raised to address.
The honors Tenery received are too numerous to mention: the Distinguished Service Award from the Texas Medical Association and the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Texas Ophthalmological Association are two that stand out.
He was politically outspoken and a man of deep faith, but neither of those subjects ever came up in his exam rooms.
In the office, Tenery’s demeanor was friendly, highly professional and to the point. He was an engaged, active listener. I never felt like he was rushed or in a hurry to get out the door.
One example of his bedside empathy occurred over twenty years ago when, during a visit, I was preoccupied with a situational issue that had nothing to do with my vision — Tenery observed this and I told him what was on my mind. He said, “I can’t help you with that, but if you want to talk more about it, I will be happy to listen.”
Not only will I miss the superb care Tenery provided, but I developed a complete trust in his judgment about medical issues in general. During the time I knew him, he suggested other primary doctors and specialists for me to see — when retirement or death forced me to find replacements.
As for Dr. Robert Tenery, there will never be a replacement. May he rest in peace.