Dr. James West would have earned a spot in medical history solely on the basis of his signature achievement as a surgeon. In 1950, West was part of the team at a Chicago-area hospital that was responsible for the first successful human kidney transplant (in this case, into Ruth Tucker, who was in danger of dying from polycystic kidney disease). Drugs to suppress the immune system and prevent it from rejecting a transplanted organ didn’t yet exist, so the transplant only lasted three months before it was rejected. But the operation gave Tucker’s remaining kidney enough of a break that it could start working again, and she lived for an additional five years as a result. And the breakthrough helped pave the way for the organ transplants that today give tens of thousands of people each year a new lease on life.
But West, who passed away July 24 at the age of 98 in Palm Desert, Calif., accomplished something else that probably had an even bigger impact upon the lives of a lot more people, by helping them to get sober.
In 1982, a year after he retired from a 40-year career as a surgeon, West moved to California and took a job as admitting physician at the newly established Betty Ford Center, where he worked with patients trying to overcome dependencies on drugs and alcohol. West, who in time became the center’s medical director, understood their struggle all too well. In 1948, as a young doctor, he’d kicked booze with the help of AA, and he carried a sobriety chip in his pocket every day for the next 54 years. While it was Mrs. Ford’s courage and candor that helped raise awareness of how chemical dependency could afflict people of any age and social class, it was West who actually treated the patients and worked with them to regain control of their lives. As the center’s current chief executive, John Schwarzlose, explains: “when I look back at the 30-plus years, Jim was there every day. I think, in so many ways, when we write the history, he’s as important as Betty.”
It was West, in fact, who helped reinforce the idea that addiction is a disease that can afflict anybody. In this 1984 UPI interview, he encouraged ordinary people to seek treatment at the center by reassuring them that they were in the same boat as famous patients such as Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Cash and Liza Minnelli. Everyone had one thing in common, he explained: “All the patients are scared when they arrive here.”
The kindly, convivial healer — who for a time played banjo in an all-doctor band — also worked hard to spread his wisdom about how to overcome chemical dependency. He authored a 1997 how-to text, The Betty Ford Center Book of Answers, and after retiring from the center in 2007 at age 93, wrote a newspaper question-and-answer column for those struggling with sobriety. (Here’s his final column, published posthumously, on the dangers of drinking to stay warm while skiing.) West also lives on in more than 40 advice videos that are posted on YouTube, including this one in which he discusses the points in life at which alcoholism typically emerges.