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How a passion for golf set a slacker on his life’s course and to a president’s bedside

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2012 - Winter


Growing up in Cuba, Donald O’Kieffe, M.D. ’64, says he was “headed nowhere fast,” until a love of golf indirectly drove the future gastroenterologist to medical school and made him a key presence at ailing former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s bedside.

The son of a Minnesota banker and an Indiana homemaker and aspiring actress who once roomed with Ida Lupino, O’Kieffe was born in Hong Kong, where his father had been transferred by what was then Chase National Bank. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, O’Kieffe and his pregnant mother were evacuated to the United States, but Japanese forces held his father prisoner for another nine months.

Once freed through a prisoner-of-war exchange, O’Kieffe’s father was assigned to Havana, Cuba, where O’Kieffe sank into the languor of the locale, studying sometimes and playing golf often. “I wasn’t motivated. It was the heat, the tropical climate,” O’Kieffe says.

Certain that O’Kieffe was on the wrong track, his father laid before him brochures from the most prestigious American boarding schools. He chose to attend the Taft School in Watertown, Conn., whose brochure had a photo of a golf course on the cover. “It straightened me out and propelled me into Yale.”

During his years at Taft and later as an undergraduate at Yale College, O’Kieffe spent holidays in Havana—including New Year’s Day 1959, when Fidel Castro took over the island. The New Year’s Day fireworks turned out to be gunfire. “We were trapped down there. The port was closed, the airport was closed, and there was a lot of shooting.”

When the U.S. Embassy arranged emergency evacuations for American students, O’Kieffe and throngs of other students and parents met at the Hotel Nacional, where they caught a bus—with machine gunners behind sandbags on the roof—to the airport. With more passengers than seats, O’Kieffe sat in the aisle during the flight, cradling a canister of film a network reporter had asked him to bring to New York. In New York, after O’Kieffe handed over the film, a news producer whisked him and a classmate off to the television studio to be interviewed. Back in New Haven, a reporter from the New Haven Register asked for an interview despite O’Kieffe’s protests that he’d be late for class. The next day the headline over his picture read “Yale Student Witnesses Cuban Revolution.”

Life wasn’t any less exciting after the flight from Cuba. O’Kieffe served as a staff physician at Walter Reed Army Medical Center during the Vietnam War. The highlight of his career was a rotation in 1968, when he kept daily eight-hour vigils at the bedside of former President Eisenhower, in critical condition after a second heart attack. “We were sitting just a few feet from him, and if it wasn’t the middle of the night, we’d be talking to him. We could see the constant parade of dignitaries coming in while he was in the hospital.”

As a golf lover, O’Kieffe was given a special task. Eisenhower never missed weekend golf on television, and the chief of cardiology asked O’Kieffe to determine whether watching golf was bad for Eisenhower’s heart. O’Kieffe found that the former president’s heart rhythm was irregular only when Arnold Palmer was playing. Palmer, who was Eisenhower’s dear friend, had just quit smoking and had started wearing eyeglasses, and his game was patchy. O’Kieffe recommended that Eisenhower not watch Palmer play, and that became the policy. Eisenhower must not have held a grudge—his typed thank-you letter hangs in a frame on O’Kieffe’s office wall.

“Dear Captain O’Kieffe … I want you to know of my gratitude for your interest and professional skill during many hours of extra duty following my last heart attack,” the letter read.

Eisenhower was not O’Kieffe’s last politician patient by far. Settling in D.C., O’Kieffe served as a medical consultant to the White House, the State Department, the National Institutes of Health, and the Peace Corps. In this role, he cared for Nancy Kissinger while she was hospitalized during Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s historic trip to China in 1971.

O’Kieffe performed the first colonoscopy in the D.C. area in 1972. Having trained at Walter Reed under H. Worth Boyce, M.D., a leading authority on the emerging field of endoscopic photography, O’Kieffe had access to the only existing equipment for the procedure. When he began his practice in D.C., O’Kieffe performed colonoscopies through an agreement with the manufacturers before the scopes were made available commercially. “There was a great need. I wanted to start right then.”

While patients and physicians rejected routine colonoscopy for the next 20 years, O’Kieffe became an ardent spokesperson for its benefits in lectures across the country and from his downtown practice on K Street—where he still treats a “parade of dignitaries”—including a Secretary of State, a former Secretary of Defense, members of the House and Senate, and many ambassadors—not unlike those who once visited Eisenhower.