One on One: Jim Bryan, a doctor for Allan Gurganus

Published 5:07 pm Monday, January 25, 2021

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By D.G. Martin

Dr. Jim Bryan, who died on January 8 in Chapel Hill at 88, was the kind of caring physician whom author Allan Gurganus is drawn to.

Last Sunday’s The New York Times profiled Gurganus to prepare readers for the author’s new book, “The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus.”

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The lead story in the new book, “The Wish for a Good Young Country Doctor,” features a rural Illinois town beset by cholera in 1849. Its young doctor fights valiantly against the awesome power of the epidemic.

In his classic debut novel, “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” Gurganus made Doc Collier preside over the death of lead character Lucy Marsden’s infant son.

But it is Dr. Marion Roper, the lead fictional character in Gurganus’s novella, “Decoy,” who most reminded me of Jim Bryan.

Both Bryan and Roper went north to medical school after college at Davidson, Bryan to Penn and Roper to Yale. Each was brilliant and could have become a successful medical specialist or researcher. However, both came back to North Carolina where their careful attention to patients earned them the devotion of the countless people they served.

Both took pleasure in knowing their patients and giving them medical advice that was both informed and understandable.

Both found facing retirement to be a challenge. But their responses were very different. Roper simply closed his office and took up a hobby, carving duck decoys, leaving his former patients behind.

Not Jim Bryan. When it came time to retire, he decided to keep on doing what he loved, caring for patients, teaching medical students, and mentoring new doctors. He summed it up, “I believe my patients are my responsibility. They need a generalist to follow them through life, and that’s me. Having a primary care champion is the best medicine.”

One of his friends remembered that whenever he drove through Chapel Hill, he “would see Jim taking someone’s pulse, giving solace to patients on the Franklin Street sidewalk. It was clear to me, early on, that Jim was a role model who was born to take care of people.”

Bryan took a special interest in providing support and care for people approaching the end of life. He was a founder and longtime active supporter of hospice in North Carolina. UNC’s medical school established a fund in his honor to help finance construction of a UNC hospice inpatient facility in Chatham County.

Bryan was never ready to give up his patient- and people-centered life. He served as a volunteer physician at a medical clinic for the uninsured. He continued his interest in end-of-life care and advocating for doctors to be servant centered.

One of his students, Paul Chelminski, remembered hearing a story that illustrated Bryan’s approach. When asked what he was doing as he went into a clinic to see patients, Bryan said “I’m just going to fold socks.”

Chelminski said that was just Bryan’s modest way of explaining his approach to patient care. “It was the work of a servant – humble, necessary and of fundamental importance – it was done simply.”

Teaching by example was always Bryan’s strength. Even as he discontinued treatment for the cancer that was taking his life, he showed us that, with courage, life could still be rich. On December 27, just days before his death, he and his wife Betsy read a poem as a part of the regular service at Chapel Hill’s University Presbyterian Church.

The poem, “Mysteries, Yes” by Mary Oliver, begins with “Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.”

It concludes with words that could have been written by Dr. Bryan:

“Let me keep company always with those who say, ‘Look!’ and laugh in astonishment, and bow their heads.”

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and other times.