Touching Patients, Touching History

St. J's John Marshall, MD, the first radiation oncologist in the North Country, is inspired by people and the past

"That’s my baby." John Marshall, MD, gazes at his laptop screen like a proud parent. Like millions of people, John fills his computer's desktop with a sentimental photograph, with a picture that both touches him and says something unique.

Focus article photo

"Our patients up here love him. When they see someone older, waiting for them at his desk wearing suspenders, they know this is a real person, someone they can really talk to. They're comfortable."

Spread across the screen is a beautiful photo of old car No. 403 of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad—the "Truman Car," as it is sometimes called, because Pres. Harry Truman used it in Texas during the 1948 presidential campaign. And since 1989, No. 403 has belonged to John Marshall, radiation oncologist at Norris Cotton Cancer Center's clinic in St. Johnsbury.

"Amtrak tells me it's one of the best heavyweight cars still on the tracks," he says, beaming. "They even use it as a model for how to do a restoration right." Built in 1913, its elegant, graceful lines shine with new paint and livery, a beautiful restoration indeed. Like all perfect marriages of form and function that transcend mere beauty to become art—think of sailing's clipper ships, or the long-hooded Packard automobiles from the 1930s, or Riedel's crystal wineglasses—No. 403 shows human imagination and ingenuity as well as history at work.

A Country Doctor—and a Radiation Pioneer

And that's much like John himself. There aren't many country doctors anymore, especially doctors who bridge history and eras, who can vividly remember Franklin Roosevelt's voice and Ernest Tubb singing the lonesome cowboy blues for crowds of dusty farmers—and who can tell a patient when radiation is the right treatment for cancer and when it isn't.

When Marshall was born in 1936 in a tiny Texas town called Borger, memories were still fresh from a few years earlier when the Texas Rangers (the real-deal Rangers, not the baseball team) cleared the place of outlaws. His father was an itinerant, poker-playing oilman with a sixth-grade education, and John grew up in a dozen oil boomtowns in the American Southwest among "real cowboys, buckaroos, and horse thieves," he smilingly recalls. In Farmington, New Mexico, where he attended high school, the mother of his girlfriend at the time encouraged him to go to college—"Anyone who marries my daughter will have to do something with himself," she told him. In the end he didn't get the girl but he got an education, first at Utah State University and then at the University of Miami. Somewhere along the line he switched from geology ("my first thought was to become an oilman, of course") to medicine.

He tells a story about his father, when he was a boy, being wounded in the back by a rifle shot fired by an angry squatter. Frontier justice followed. "My background didn't justify where I ended up in life," John says quietly, the gratefulness still evident in his soft, adagio voice. A touch of the Southwest still lingers in his spoken words.

Rock Bottom and Copper-Sheathed
Photo: John Marshall, MD

"I feel like I’m still needed, and I believe we do good service to the community up here. It's sometimes a hard thing to do but it's always gratifying to convince someone to go in the right direction with treatment."

The North Country of Vermont and New Hampshire is eternally grateful that his father lived and also for John's career change into a doctor. After maintaining a private practice in Florida for 16 years and practicing medicine in Pennsylvania and teaching medicine at Emory University, he came to St. Johnsbury 12 years ago and immediately felt a kinship with the hard-working, no-nonsense people who live just below the Canadian border. Marshall quotes a line written by Stephen Vincent Benet in his story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" to describe what he likes most about his patients and the communities they live in: "rock bottom and copper-sheathed." "They're like the people I knew when I was a boy," John says. "Back in World War II, the veterans will tell you that you always wanted a guy from the North Country at your back. There was no one more dependable."

"Our patients up here love him," says Lory Grimes, practice manager at the St. J facility. "When they see someone older, waiting for them at his desk wearing suspenders, they know this is a real person, someone they can really talk to. They're comfortable." She points out that he was the first radiation oncologist in the North Country, and he still makes the rounds of tumor boards at regional hospitals, listening to doctors and offering guidance. "Oh, and has he told you yet about the bomber?" she laughs.

A conversation with John doesn't last too long without the subject of the bomber coming up. It was, and still is, a B-25 "Mitchell," one of the real workhorse airplanes of World War II for the Allies. B-25s saw action in every theater of the war, especially in the Pacific. Years ago, John and a flying enthusiast friend found one for sale and restored it. For years they took the big twin-engine plane to air shows all over the country, thrilling and inspiring crowds. But when he sold his Florida practice John decided to give up the plane, too, and he donated it to the Smithsonian Institution. Recently, he heard that the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum is seriously considering displaying his old bomber in a trio including a restored P-61 "Black Widow" (the first airplane with radar) and the "Enola Gay," the B-29 bomber that flew the Hiroshima mission that hastened the end of the war. "For a history guy like me, boy, that would really be something," John says, beaming again. "My old plane up there with celebrities."

Service to the Community

The talk turns back to old No. 403, his other love. "I've always loved trains. I loved the ‘Wild, Wild West' TV show, and I loved the railroad car those guys rode around in. I used to dream about it—‘Someday, if I could just have something like that.' Well, one day I found this car for sale, and it's given me joy and pleasure ever since." John can expound for hours on the details and intricacies of his beloved train car, but it's always the human part of history he finds his way back to. An old retired porter traveled on the car with John for a few years. "He used to sleep sitting up. He told me, ‘That's how I slept for years. That's how I like to hear the rails.' He showed me how they used to make the beds in the sleeping cars on the Santa Fe line, how to barely touch the linens," John recalls, "and he also showed me how to make that French toast the Santa Fe was famous for. He was living history."

When he was at Emory, John used the car, fully equipped with a bedroom, kitchen, and living quarters, as his home, and now his son, also named John, lives on No. 403. The family occasionally rents it out to hopeful politicians. "Clinton rode in it. Kerry, Gore, Gingrich, they've all been on board. It's been a lucky car for some, not so for others," he smiles.

Though he officially retired two years ago, John still regularly sees patients at the St. J clinic. "We talk about their symptoms for a few minutes and I'll give them a course of action, then we talk much longer about their lives and families," he says. "I feel like I'm still needed, and I believe we do good service to the community up here. It's sometimes a hard thing to do but it's always gratifying to convince someone to go in the right direction with treatment."

December 14, 2011