|A surgeon for all seasons
by John D. Hubbard
Hammers hammering, drills drilling, saws sawing. Dr. Ivan Gowan '74 is hard at work restoring the ability to walk for a woman whose knee had deteriorated to the point that she was wheelchair-bound.
The operating room at Hamil-ton's Community Memorial Hospital is the House that Gowan built. Actually, there are two ORs at the hospital that recruited the third-year resident back in 1982, and Hamilton Orthopaedists - Gowan and partners Michael Zahn M.D. and Ray Meeks M.D. - keep them busy.
Gowan grew up a country boy on a farm in Kandor, south of Ithaca, and in the family feed business and hardware store. He had a passion for hockey (unabated), a love affair with Cornell (supplanted) and two younger brothers to keep life interesting.
Just before leaving on a high school exchange trip to Australia, young Ivan wrote to Cornell, Harvard, Rochester and Colgate about his future. Colgate's reply was the shortest. "Come visit," said the note. Gowan accepted the invitation. "It was May, Spring Party Weekend, and the place was gorgeous. He applied Early Decision.
With his farming background, Gowan had early thoughts about veterinarian school. While in Australia he worked with a vet and discovered he needed to be able to talk with patients. Gowan's interest in medicine grew in college and a Jan Plan with classmate Andy Merliss's physician father helped to solidify the choice. For a month Gowan was exposed to all aspects of the medical world but a strong desire for a particular lifestyle seemed to confine the student to one specialty.
"I'll have to go into family medicine," Gowan thought as an undergraduate, "because I could never be an orthopaedist in a place like Hamilton." It wasn't until a medical school professor pressed Gowan - "You act like a surgeon, you think like a surgeon." - that he made the switch to orthopaedics.
Not long after that, the administration and board of directors at Community Memorial Hospital decided to recruit an orthopaedic surgeon. Hospital administrator David Felton wrote to all Colgate physicians about the search. His first response was a call from Gowan, who still had a year of residency to complete. The fit was obviously right - Gowan set aside concerns about the small population base and Community Memorial agreed to wait two years as the surgeon completed his residency then accepted a fellowship in sports medicine with Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles.
Becoming a surgeon
Gowan had gone to Cornell Medical College after Colgate. Following an internship in general surgery at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center (and gaining a feel for what practice in a rural area would entail), Gowan began his residency in orthopaedic surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery, where he trained with New York Giants surgeon Russ Warren.
During an early visit to Hamilton, Gowan watched Community Memorial's general surgeons George Gilmore and George Dutkewych remove a gall bladder. "I was used to large teaching institutions and here there was one small OR with a window where you could see the hockey rink - but George and George had the gall bladder out in 45 minutes.
I tell you I was impressed."Gowan knew he would have a solo practice in Hamilton and the thought of being on call every night was "daunting," but he and wife Carolyn and their young family decided Hamilton provided the "best of all worlds. We could watch the boys grow up," says Gowan. "I left in 1974 and came back in 1984. It was great coming back, a breath of fresh air. Sometimes you have to go away to come home."
Still, Gowan remembers his first two years in Hamilton as "brutal." Not only was he constantly on call but he was building the future of orthopaedics at Community Memorial Hospital from the ground up. During one of those early weeks he performed 10 surgeries, "five or six of which were being done for the first time in Hamilton." During one early operation he called for a bone chisel. "I was handed this thing that looked like it came from the coal mines. And we had this big old electric drill."
It wasn't just equipment. An anesthesiologist from Oneida was covering the Hamilton area, which meant elective surgeries could go until 1 or 2 in the morning.
By 1986, however, Community Memorial Hospital had updated its operating room and built a second OR with a state-of-the-art ventilation system that remains unique in central New York. Zahn joined the practice, too (Meeks would arrive in 1990), and the small rural facility became a center for joint repairs, sports medicine and orthopaedic surgery.
"Clearly Ivan has had a significant impact on the hospital," says Community Memorial's Felton. "He's established a premier center for orthopaedics and sports medicine and within two years was named chief of surgery.
"Ivan has been one of the keys to the growth of our medical staff. He is one of the best salesmen we have. He and Carolyn have been real leaders at the hospital and in the community at large."
Gowan has headed up two Community Memorial Hospital fund drives and he and Carolyn quietly underwrite a number of activities at the central school and in the village. He is an active youth coach, supervisor of the Gowan backyard hockey rink and an ageless rugger passing on the finer points of rugby to neighborhood kids who learn firsthand just what competitive spirit means.
Named Colgate's team surgeon in 1984, Gowan continues to treat the Red Raiders to this day. "Ivan is a wonderful orthopaedist," says Colgate's head athletic trainer Marty Erb. "As an athlete himself, he has an understanding of an athlete's motivation and what they go through when they are hurt. Ivan talks their language."
Enthusiastic, Gowan is a fixture on the sideline during football games and in the penalty box at hockey games and forms a potent medical team with Erb and Merrill Miller, director of the Student Health Center.
While in Los Angeles, Gowan saw a full range of action, from the L.A. Express (featuring Steve Young at the time) to Hollywood Park jockeys. If Gowan misses the glamour, it doesn't show. He seems perfectly at home treating college and high school athletes and has been known to form casts so that hockey players can hold a stick.
A sense of understanding is important in dealing with all patients, according to Gowan, who is able to balance compassion with an ability to inflict pain. "If you have a nine-year-old with a broken forearm, you have to be able to straighten it. You can't be tentative. You have to be self-assured. You have to have a certain amount of chutzpa."
Last year Gowan did 70 total joint replacements, working constantly to reduce the time of the operations while maintaining exacting standards and guarding against infection. Through it all, there are medical complications to contend with. "You have to be able to change your mind and come up with several options," says Gowan of the work he does. "You have to be creative without being dangerous to the patient."
In less than an hour, Gowan and his team have given their patient a new knee. Without much of a break they will be back in the OR for an arthroscopic repair of an old soccer injury. Still later there is back surgery, then office visits, a consultation at the training room and finally a Pee Wee hockey practice to run.
Through it all, Ivan Gowan is making Hamilton a better place to live.