Photo courtesy Maryjane Donaldson
They called him "Dr. Hutch."
That’s how all the nurses who worked with Dr. William Hutchinson back in the early years referred to the easygoing physician, remembers Maryjane Donaldson.
“He was my buddy. He’d hunt me down to go do rounds with him,” said Donaldson, now 82, who was a young nurse when she worked with Hutchinson during the 1950s. “All the patients worshipped him. He always treated everyone with respect. He was such a neat guy – really special.”
In those days, Hutchinson was a surgeon working at Swedish Hospital in Seattle. In the years to come, of course, he would wage a fight to try and save his beloved younger brother Fred, who died of lung cancer at age 45 in 1964. Later still, he would found the world-renowned Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in his brother’s honor.
But back then, recalls Donaldson, there wasn’t a lot that could be done for patients with cancer. Sometimes Hutchinson would do “open-and-close” surgeries, when he operated on a patient only to see that the cancer was advanced beyond what surgery could do.
Photo from Fred Hutch archives
“I look back on it now and I think ‘How sad.’ If you had cancer, that was it, you were considered a goner,” she said. “It wasn’t like it is now.”
As with Hutchinson, the death of a sibling was the catalyst that shaped Donaldson’s career. Donaldson was about 7 when her father asked her to watch her toddler sister Jean Anna Miller, who wasn’t feeling well, while he stepped out of the room. Donaldson reached into the crib to touch Jean’s forehead and noticed how hot it felt. Then, moments later, she was horrified when Jean had a seizure and stopped breathing. Donaldson yelled for her father, who ran into the room and began trying to perform CPR.
In that moment, Donaldson heard a clear voice saying "You have to become a nurse.”
"My baby sister died ... and I couldn’t do anything. But as a nurse, I could take care of people and try to help,” she said.
Donaldson worked as a nurse for decades, continuing after she married and while her sons, Alan and Keith, were growing up. For many years, she worked the night shift so she could take care of her children during the day, often preparing breakfast for the boys the night before so it would be ready if they woke before she got home. “I slept standing up or leaning against the wall,” she joked.
Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch
In 1997, Donaldson became a patient herself when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, had a double mastectomy and underwent chemotherapy. She knows that some of the key advances in cancer treatments today are due to her old friend, Bill Hutchinson.
On a recent crisp winter day, as Donaldson walked around the Hutch campus, she marveled at the legacy of the man she knew. She stopped to look at a painting of Fred Hutchinson wearing his Seattle Rainiers uniform – and at plaques commemorating the three Nobel Prizes awarded to Fred Hutch researchers for discoveries that have saved countless lives.
Linda Dahlstrom is a former Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center editor. Previously, she was the health editor for NBC News Digital and msnbc.com. She also worked at several newspapers during her 25-year career as a journalist covering AIDS, cancer, end-of-life issues and global health.