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Richard D.
Democrat IL

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  • Remembering C. Everett Koop

    by Senator Richard J. Durbin

    Posted on 2013-02-27

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    DURBIN. Mr. President, I rise to speak about the passing of an extraordinary American, a man who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I think he was one of the true leaders in my lifetime when it came to issues related to health care. Of course, I am referring to former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

    It is hard to imagine today, as we reflect on all that has happened in the last several decades, the courage it took for Dr. Koop to step up and honestly describe the HIV/AIDS epidemic to the American people. This socially conservative doctor went so far as to make sure there was a mailing to every household in America that described the threat of this disease. There were many who thought that would never happen because of the political environment of the day. But Dr. Koop rose to the challenge and, in doing that, he saved lives in America. And he informed this country in a way that no other Surgeon General has about this looming danger.

    If only that alone were his legacy, it would be more than enough. But I had a special personal friendship with him that related to our mutual efforts against the scourge of tobacco and the deaths related to that product. We have come a long way in America, and Dr. Koop was part of the progress we made. He was resolute in making it clear that tobacco was the No. 1 avoidable cause of death in America at his time, and is still today.

    He was helpful in so many ways. When Senator Frank Lautenberg and I, more than 25 years ago, teamed up--I was then in the House; Frank in the Senate--to ban smoking on airplanes, it was something that neither Senator Lautenberg nor I could have predicted would have had the impact it did. It is one of the Malcolm Gladwell tipping points in health history in this country because when we took smoking off airplanes, people started asking the obvious question: If secondhand smoke is not healthy on an airplane, why is it healthy in a train, in a bus, in an office, in a hospital, in a restaurant, in a government building? And all of the dominoes started to fall.

    [[Page S928]] America is a different place today. C. Everett Koop was one of the most courageous medical voices who stepped out time and time again to remind us of the importance of that issue. Once again, his leadership saved lives.

    On the back pages of yesterday's Washington Post was an editorial entitled: ``PEPFAR's glowing report card, 10 years later.'' PEPFAR--the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief--was begun under President George W. Bush. While President Bush and I haven't always seen eye to eye, I have the greatest respect for his leadership in the effort to end the global AIDS pandemic.

    PEPFAR is the largest global health initiative ever undertaken focused on a single disease. When Congress reauthorized it in 2008, we asked for a report card on its effectiveness.

    Well, a remarkable--and remarkably thorough--analysis of PEPFAR was just released by the National Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. The verdict: PEPFAR has been ``globally transformative,'' a ``lifeline'' and credited around the world for ``restoring hope'' in the long, difficult struggle against HIV/AIDS.

    The report goes on to say that the program has set big goals ``and has met or surpassed many of them'' and it ``has saved and improved the lives of millions'' of men, women and children throughout the world.

    That is an achievement that all Americans can be proud of.

    On the front page of yesterday's newspapers was the story of one American who could take a special pride in our Nation's efforts to end the global AIDS pandemic.

    C. Everett Koop died Monday at the age of 96.

    He was called ``America's Doctor.'' As U.S. Surgeon General during the Reagan administration, Dr. Koop informed--and really transformed-- Americans' understanding of HIV/AIDs.

    He saw beyond politics and ideology and understood that HIV/AIDs were not punishments, they were a public health emergency.

    At a time when there was great fear and ignorance about HIV/AIDs and little treatment for the illness, Dr. Koop saw that information was the most useful weapon against AIDS.

    In May 1988, he mailed a seven-page brochure, ``Understanding AIDS,'' to every household in the country. It was an audacious act of leadership, especially in an administration in which almost no one else would even utter the word ``AIDS'' in public.

    Dr. Koop was also a tireless campaigner against tobacco. As surgeon general, he released a report in 1982 that attributed 30 percent of all cancer deaths to smoking.

    He wrote that nicotine was as addictive as heroin, warned against the hazards of secondhand smoke, and demanded that the warning labels on cigarette packs be rewritten to reflect the lethal dangers of tobacco.

    It is probably hard for anyone younger than 40 and perhaps even 50 to understand how Dr. Koop's courage and candor fundamentally changed the public debate on smoking.

    Before the Surgeon General's report, smoking was common in offices and restaurants and public buildings throughout America--even in the confined space of airline cabins.

    In 1986, I cosponsored a bill in the House--and Senator Lautenberg cosponsored a measure in the Senate--to ban smoking on domestic flights of 2 hours or less. We didn't know it then but that law, which passed in 1987, was the beginning of a smoke-free revolution that has saved countless lives.

    Dr. Koop provided the facts and the leadership to make that change possible.

    Remarkably, Charles Everett Koop had no background in public health when he was appointed by President Reagan in 1981 to head the commissioned corps of the U.S. Public Health Service.

    He was, at the time, 64 years old and one of the world's leading pediatric surgeons. He was also a socially conservative Christian who had written a popular treatise against abortion.

    He was born in Brooklyn, an only child, and he used to say that he had wanted to be a surgeon since he was 6 years old.

    He attended Dartmouth College and Cornell University's Medical College and began his residency at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in 1942.

    In 1946, when he was not yet 30 years old, Dr. Koop became chief of surgery at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

    Pediatric surgery as a medical specialty barely existed at that time. Most doctors viewed children then as little adults. Operations on newborns were rare and often fatal.

    Dr. Koop established what is considered by many the first neonatal intensive care unit in the country.

    President Bill Clinton awarded Dr. Koop the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995.

    Dr. Koop's legacy will live on in the scores of pediatric surgeons he trained, many of whom went on to head pediatrics departments in hospitals in America and around the world.

    His legacy will live on through the institute that bears his name, the C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth University.

    And Dr. Koop's legacy will live on in the millions of lives his work has helped save.

    I want to read a quote from one of those millions of people. This is what one man wrote on the Washington Post Web site following the front- page story announcing Dr. Koop's death: ``When I was 6 months old, Dr Koop was a pediatric surgeon in Philadelphia. On Thanksgiving night, he left his family dinner to perform an emergency operation on me for pyloric stenosis,'' a condition which prevents the stomach from emptying into the small intestine. ``The surgery saved my life.'' The man continued: ``That was 68 years ago. I grew up . . . went to college and two graduate schools . . . got a commission in the Army . . . served 7\1/2\ years active duty with 2\1/2\ years in Vietnam in 2 infantry divisions . . . 25 years in the Army Reserves . . . and 30 years as a civilian intelligence officer in DC, with 15 years on the [Joint Chiefs] staff. [I was] in the Pentagon during the 9/11 attack.'' He ends by saying: ``I can only hope that in some small way, I have been worthy of the life Dr Koop gave me although I could never adequately repay him.'' Dr. Koop's wife of 67 years, Elizabeth, died in 2007. He remarried in 2010.

    I want to offer my condolences to his widow, Cora Hogue, to Dr. Koop's children and grandchildren and his many friends and colleagues.

    As I mentioned, Dr. Koop lived to the impressive age of 96 years. But what is truly impressive is the fact that untold millions of people around the world have lived, and will continue to live longer, healthier lives, because of the professional excellence, wisdom, and courage of Dr. Charles Everett Koop. He served America well and he will be missed.


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