At 86, head and neck surgeon still contributes to medicine and hospice cause he helped found
One medical school memory that Donald P. Shedd, M.D. ’46, HS ’53, holds dear is of the day he walked into the “croup room” at Grace-New Haven Community Hospital and peered through the mist that was then used to treat children with the characteristic barking cough. There he caught his first glimpse of his future wife, a Yale nursing student named Charlotte Newsom. “You can imagine how glamorous a woman looks in a steam room,” he said. She turned out to be lovely, a gifted pianist who played Chopin beautifully. They married and launched two brilliant careers.
Shedd, now 86, ended up joining the Yale faculty, later became chief of head and neck surgery at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, and serving as national president of the Society of Head and Neck Surgeons, which became the American Head and Neck Society in 1998. Charlotte Newsom Shedd, M.N., R.N. ’46, who passed away two years ago at the age of 84, co-founded Hospice Buffalo, often working from the dining room table while caring for her aging mother and the youngest of the four Shedd children. She traveled around the country as an early pioneer of the hospice movement at the national level.
Both Shedds had high levels of energy. Now professor emeritus at SUNY Buffalo, Shedd still attends weekly tumor board meetings. He also maintains a database of head and neck operations at the cancer institute, where he was chief of head and neck surgery for 29 years. In 2007, the department published his fifth book, a history of head and neck surgery at Roswell. Shedd is also the author of Historical Landmarks in Head and Neck Cancer Surgery and The Early History of Hospice Buffalo.
“You become conscious of a decrease in energy in your mid-80s,” said the surgeon, who gave up windsurfing on Lake Erie around age 75. But he still plays tennis and maintains a regular exercise schedule. He has helped build houses for Habitat for Humanity and is an active member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, where he moderates a discussion group, serves on committees, and participates in a monthly book club.
Shedd earned his bachelor’s degree at Yale and began his study of medicine in an accelerated program during World War II, when faculty members were leaving to serve in the military and medical students were hired to deliver emergency anesthesia at night. During his 14 years on the Yale faculty, he became increasingly interested in the care of head and neck cancer patients. He moved to Roswell Park in 1967. “The job offer in Buffalo was an excellent one,” Shedd said. “It was one of the best positions in the field in the country.”
Shedd describes himself as “a modest contributor” to head and neck surgery during what he calls “a fascinating period” of advances in medicine. “I’d say there have been modest gains in head and neck cancer survival and major gains in quality of life, both cosmetically and functionally,” he said. “One of my contributions to care at Roswell Park was the incorporation of the use of the surgical microscope in endoscopic diagnosis. It made diagnosis more precise,” he said. As a faculty member at Yale, he conducted radiographic studies of swallowing in inpatients after head and neck surgery. “I did some work at Roswell in surgical approaches to speech rehabilitation after laryngectomy,” he said.
In addition to his clinical work and research, Shedd helped train fellows and residents who began their careers at Roswell Park. He was involved in medical service in Peru and Nicaragua, as well as short surveys of oral cancer research in India, Pakistan, and Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka). He also held a visiting professorship in South Africa.
While his own career was demanding enough, Shedd shared his wife’s passion for hospice care. The contemporary American hospice movement began in New Haven when the Shedds and others attended a talk at Yale by Dame Cicely Saunders, the Englishwoman regarded as the founder of the modern hospice movement. “We kept talking about it after we came to Buffalo. We realized there was a need for such a facility here, so we formed a founding committee, then Charlotte took the initiative,” he said. The couple also collaborated on a survey of the final period of life in 60 head and neck cancer patients. Charlotte received a distinguished alumna award from the School of Nursing in 1992.
Shedd said the support he and his wife provided each other throughout their careers and retirement was crucial. He considers it a privilege to have been able to care for Charlotte at home during her encounter with Alzheimer disease. She spent her final day in the hospice inpatient unit she had helped to establish.
“Joseph Campbell said something about following your bliss,” Shedd said, referring to the scholar who wrote about the power of mythology to explain human experience. “I think I have been able to do that.”