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Noted Surgeon Passes at 83
|Written by Earl Brechlin|
BAR HARBOR – Dr. Lewellyn “Lew” Cooper, a doctor’s doctor who inspired and mentored a generation of physicians and toiled tirelessly to heal the sick and injured, passed away on Jan. 29. He died at the hospital where he spent more than 40 years caring for his neighbors. He was 83 years old.
Dr. Cooper’s working life focused on his family and on his daily triangular circuit. The route was barely 100 yards on a side, starting with the walk from his house next door to the east side of Mount Desert Island Hospital, where he would check on patients, then heading north across the parking lot to his office for appointments, and back home again.
“It was amazing all the good things he was able to do in just that small area,” his son Bob remembered.
“In the last few days we have heard from so many people who have wanted to share stories of how dad helped them or made things better,” Mr. Cooper continued. “It seems like he touched everyone he could have possibly touched.”
Lew Cooper and his wife Polly moved to Bar Harbor in 1956. After renting for a year they purchased the house next to the hospital where they raised a family and lived for some 50 years.
A veteran, who served with a MASH unit during the Korean conflict, Dr. Cooper quickly developed a loyal following at MDI Hospital.
Inspired by his skills, some of his early patients went on to pursue medical careers. Bill Horner of Bar Harbor, now a retired surgeon himself, recalls being treated by Dr. Cooper after suffering a sports injury in high school.
“I do remember coming away with a significant desire to become a doctor,” Dr. Horner recalled. “The guy was too cool for school. But he was much more than that. Soon afterward I got an invitation to go down to the hospital and watch an operation. That was the beginning. I became a doctor all because a young, skilled surgeon shared his love of a challenging profession with a romantic, dreaming boy.”
The MDI Hospital’s operating room was dedicated to Dr. Cooper in 1993, and the former Medical Associate Building was re-named the Cooper-Gilmore Health Center in 1998.
Along with being a mentor and healer in local circles, Dr. Cooper also helped save lives, literally, on the road. On one occasion he and Polly were traveling to visit family down state when they encountered a patch of road covered with glare ice in Brunswick. Their vehicles, along with scores of others, skidded off the highway into the ditch. Several cars collided. As he was getting out of his car, Dr. Cooper saw someone trying to cross the slippery pavement. The man, an airman at the Brunswick Naval Air Station, was hit full on by car and was thrown unconscious and not breathing to the ground. Dr. Cooper rushed to his side and, with the assistance of a passing nurse, performed CPR and rescue breathing to keep the broken and bleeding young man alive until an ambulance could arrive.
Years later, the man, confined to a wheelchair after the accident, traveled from Georgia with his family to Bar Harbor to thank Dr. Cooper personally.
“I remember when they came to the house. They were so grateful for what dad had done,” Bob Cooper said. “Everyone was crying.”
Later, Dr. Cooper was given a medal by the Maine State Police for his lifesaving efforts.
With his own life dedicated to saving lives, Dr. Cooper hated to see them taken. Watching U.S. troops being picked off with roadside bombs in Iraq brought back memories of Dr. Cooper’s comrades being killed in Korea. “He hated war. He said it was a waste of good people,” Bob said.
But Dr. Cooper had great affection and respect for the men and women in uniform. Sitting in a restaurant in Florida when news of the first Gulf War broke out, Dr. Cooper rose from his table and saluted the television screen. He stood alone for a few seconds but soon was joined by everyone in the place.
While his professional and community accomplishments are legion (See obituary on page 4), family members and his many friends most fondly remember Dr. Cooper for his humor, tenderness and compassion. As Dr. Cooper’s beloved wife Polly, who was known for her own strength of character and ebullient personality, was losing her battle with cancer, she drew strength, as so many of his patients had done over the years, in Dr. Cooper’s quiet reserve and personal fortitude.
“He was there every step of the way. I was totally in awe at how tender and gentle he was with my mom,” said daughter JoAnn Sawyer.
According to his family, Dr. Cooper did not mourn for long, knowing all too well the pain of loss as he earlier had endured the death of his granddaughter Lorin Cooper and later, his son Tom. Even as he advanced in years, he embraced new things. Three years ago, at the age of 80, Dr. Cooper and friend Julie Grindle called family members from the top of Cadillac Mountain at 5 a.m. after they had witnessed the sunrise. “They had so much fun together,” Ms. Sawyer said.
And when his own time came, Dr. Cooper stepped up and accepted his fate with grace and an innate sense of the cycle of life and death he had put himself at the center of for his entire career. “He was ready to go,” Bob said.
Perhaps the only place where a glint of impatience ever showed through was when the doctor found himself in need of care, his family explained. “He was always respectful but he wasn’t an easy patient,” recalled Ms. Sawyer. “He loved all the nurses and they all loved him. But I wouldn’t give him a gold star,” she laughed.
According to Bob Cooper, he casually discussed his father’s legacy with him one day a few months ago. “I told him we’d be flooded with the stories of the people whose lives he touched. He just sort of shrugged it off. He was a very humble guy.”
In the end, it was that daily trek along the triangle, from home, to hospital to the office and back, that Dr. Cooper was most proud of. “There’s a lot of things people can say about my father,” Bob said. “I think they all agree he gave his entire life to the people of this island.”