The night before his discharge in August 1946, William Reed was lying in his berth aboard the USS Nevada, an old battleship holed at Pearl Harbor but put back in action.
Reed himself was riddled with doubt about his future. His thoughts were mostly of helplessness and hopelessness.
He’d come from poverty, had only a high school education, mostly in industrial instruction. What awaited him out there?
Then, he recalls, a voice came to him, unfamiliar to him in a literal sense, but one he later recognized as divine guidance.
Become a doctor, came the instruction.
Before that moment, Reed writes in his recent memoir, “The Pulse of Hope,” he’d never thought about going into medicine.
Yet, he writes, “the feeling that came to me that night was powerful and certain.
“Oddly, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it. Not only did I feel that I could — although God only knows where that confidence came from — but I had a strong sense that I should — that I was supposed to be a doctor.”
Without something bigger and stronger in his favor, he wouldn’t have been driven to overcome the odds to become one of the area’s leading heart surgeons, the 87-year-old Reed believes.
“I have always viewed medicine as a calling, just as a minister would,” he said.
Subtitled “a surgeon’s memoirs from poverty to prosperity,” Reed’s book has four main themes: escaping poverty, following one’s passion, giving back through charities and thoughts on some theological questions.
Reed was born in 1927 in Kokomo, Ind., to a family so poor they had to live in a church basement at one point. Too scared of his father to have any meaningful discussions with him, Reed credits him for staying with his family during the Depression when many other men left.
His love and respect for his mother was deep. Because of her he stayed in high school; Reed dedicates the book to her “for instilling within me a sense of hope.”
He credits his shop teacher for imparting a belief he was capable of more. The teacher mentored Reed, even taking him to the weekly Lion’s Club luncheon.
“It was the only decent meal I had all week,” Reed said.
Reed joined the Navy as World War II ended. Although he had little religious background, he started attending services and was baptized.
“I wanted to find some answers to my search for meaning, so it seemed the thing to do,” Reed writes.
With his path suddenly made clear, Reed went to the University of Indiana; during his second year in medical school he met and married a nurse named Mary Shear. In 1954, after the wedding, he accepted an internship at the University of Kansas Medical Center. She got a job as a nursing instructor and later worked in intensive care.
Two years later, Reed was a member of the team performing the first open-heart surgery there.
In 1970 he became director of thoracic surgery at St. Luke’s Hospital, which was developing its heart institute and transplant program.
Reed later helped the University of Kansas hospital’s heart program become one of the largest in the Midwest. He became chairman of the hospital’s Department of Cardiovascular Diseases, and two years ago, the Reeds gave $1.5 million to jump-start the resumption of heart transplants.
The hospital’s cardiovascular surgery center is named for the Reeds.
One thing that Reed and his wife seem to enjoy as much as medicine is being the owner of thoroughbred racehorses.
His most successful horse, Perfect Drift, finished third in the 2002 Kentucky Derby and was considered one of the best horses in the country while winning 11 of 50 career starts and earning $4.7 million during his career. The Reeds still raise horses on their Stonecrest Farm in south Kansas City.
The book reveals a part of Reed still feels detached and alone, as he did as a child. So he expresses his appreciation for poets and philosophers who explore their own dark corners and secrets. Poetry is sprinkled throughout the chapters, including some of his own.
Through the Reed Family Foundation, created in 1996, the doctor and his wife have given to several projects at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood as well as many other organizations that serve youth, veterans and others in need.
The Rev. Clayton Smith of the Leawood church calls his congregants “a dynamic duo.”
“Bill and Mary know the great feeling of generosity,” Smith said, “They certainly express their gratitude for everything they have.”
The success that Reed has enjoyed has helped him now live by the statement that “the only thing you keep is what you give away.”
Reed writes: “The circumstances of my youth made me very aware that for many of us the opportunity for success may require a boost from someone along the way.… Every time I’ve been given an opportunity to do so — to provide someone else with a boost — I’ve looked at it as a means to pay it back or even forward. It’s the best way I know to express my own gratitude for the blessings of my own life.”
Because of Reed’s belief that prayer is important in healing, one of their donations this year was used for a nondenominational chapel at the hospital.
“Deep wounds heal from the inside out … superficial wounds from the outside in,” he writes. “Healing the heart requires both, and I mean that medically and spiritually.”
The Pulse of Hope, by William Reed ($24.95)