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An American doctor finds home on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2007 - Autumn


Alice Shepard Cary, M.D. ’45, HS ’47, recalls sitting on a tatami mat made of woven straw, her legs tucked neatly beneath her, in the home of a patient in Kyoto, Japan, in the early 1950s. As the light softly filtered in through the translucent washi-paper walls, she steadied her hand as she prepared to insert a needle attached to a pneumothorax machine between the ribs of the young woman lying on a futon. Careful not to puncture the girl’s lung, Cary injected air between the lung and chest wall until she felt confident that she had collapsed the cavity in the young woman’s lung, praying that she was saving the girl from a fatal case of tuberculosis.

Cary treated several patients with tuberculosis during 48 years as a medical missionary in Kyoto. Before streptomycin reached this corner of the world in the mid-1950s, the common treatment for tuberculous cavities was to collapse the infected lung in order to “rest” it so lesions could heal, or to remove it surgically—often using only local anesthetic. Like her parents and grandparents before her, Cary’s lifelong passion has been to heal the sick and care for others in accord with her Protestant faith.

Born in June 1920, Cary spent her first 14 years in Turkey, where her father, Lorrin A. Shepard, M.D., a surgeon and 1914 Yale College graduate, was director of the American Hospital in Istanbul. Cary came to the United States in 1934 to attend high school in Massachusetts and went on to premed studies at Wellesley College.

During this time, Cupid’s arrow struck. The object of her affection was Otis Cary, her brother’s handsome roommate at Deerfield Academy. Born in Kyoto, Otis was also the child and grandchild of missionaries. When World War II began, Otis left Amherst College to join the Navy and was assigned to a POW camp at Pearl Harbor, where, because of his fluency in Japanese and his affable nature, he became the executive officer of interrogation. Alice and Otis were married in December 1944.

Alice, meanwhile, was one of three women among 56 men in the Yale School of Medicine’s Class of 1945. Her memories of the time are nothing but fond. She is quick to point out that she experienced no discrimination because of her gender from either the professors or her male classmates. “The few professors who used sarcasm as a teaching tool were just as sarcastic to the men as to the women,” she says.

After the war Otis returned to Amherst, then began graduate studies in history at Yale. Alice, meanwhile, was an intern and assistant resident at New Haven Hospital. In 1947 the couple settled in Japan, where Otis had been sent by Amherst College to teach American studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto. Alice began working in the student health center. The two lived in Amherst House, a small on-campus dormitory where they bridged Western and Eastern cultures for the next four decades.

The early years in Japan were difficult, as Alice struggled with the language and tried to turn dehydrated potatoes, eggs and Spam into appetizing meals. In 1957 she joined the Kyoto Baptist Hospital, where she saw outpatients, roughly half of them Japanese and half foreigners. Despite being a Western doctor in Asia, she had little difficulty caring for patients and says she never received negative reactions from her Japanese patients.

“During the early years there were many requests for medications not yet available in Japan,” she said. “I could, and did, order them from the United States, but had only limited funds, so had to disappoint most patients.” She also worked part time treating outpatients in the Louis Pasteur Institute and raised four children, three of whom have Japanese spouses.

Alice retired from the hospital in 1993 and returned to the United States in 1996 with Otis, who was beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Otis died from pneumonia in April 2006. Alice, who lives in Oakland, Calif., returns to Japan at least once a year to visit two of her children still living there. She has served on the board of the East Bay Chapter of the United Nations Association of America, an organization that strives to support the principles of the U.N. by educating and mobilizing Americans. “I want to back the U.N. because, like me, it tries to have its eyes on the whole world, and I would like the United States to know more about and be more concerned with the welfare of the rest of our planet.” She also manages to visit with her Yale roommate, Louise Burr Albulet, once or twice a year.

Alice says that her lifelong goal has been to “love the world and everyone in it—even difficult patients and relatives. I’ve not been totally successful.” But then again, she says, “A worthy goal is always just beyond one’s reach.”

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