Interview with Roderick Coler
Oral History Item Type Metadata
Tom Hungate: You’re rolling.
Robert Franklin: Okay. My name is Robert Franklin. I am conducting an oral history with Dr. Roderick Coler, retired MD, on June 1st, 2016. The interview is being conducted on the campus of Washington State University, Tri-Cities. I will be talking with Dr. Roderick Coler about his experiences as a doctor in the Tri-Cities area during the Hanford time.
Roderick Coler: Right. And you can—everybody calls me Rod.
Franklin: Rod? Okay, great. Everybody calls me Robert.
Coler: Yeah. Robert.
Franklin: So, Rod, as an early medical specialist in Kennewick, how did you come to Kennewick as a place to practice?
Coler: I heard about Kennewick remotely from patients when I was in the Veterans Administration Hospital Residency Program in Portland.
Franklin: In Portland, Oregon?
Coler: In Portland, Oregon.
Coler: And I was dating a ward secretary by the name of Thelma who later became my wife. She said that we should go where you’re needed.
Coler: So when I got a call from Dr. Ralph deBit who was one of the early general practitioners here—he suggested that I drive down and have lunch at the old Kennewick General Hospital. So Thelma and I drove down, but the car stalled when we got to Umatilla. I went out and started hitchhiking so we wouldn’t be late for the lunch. Nobody picked me up. So Thelma said, get behind that bush! [LAUGHTER] And I went and hid behind a piece sagebrush. She went out and stuck up her thumb, and the first car that went by picked us up and took us to the Kennewick General Hospital for lunch and I was on time. My first experience in Kennewick. Looked pretty rustic. But the five general practitioners here needed an internal medical specialist, and I was finishing that specialty. So I was welcomed. They provided me with an office, and the first three months’ free rent. It went smoothly from there on out. I came to practice where I practiced for 58 years.
Franklin: 58 years. And that was in 1947?
Coler: And that was 1948. Mm-hm.
Franklin: Okay. Great. So when you said Kennewick was very rustic, can you kind of elaborate a little more on that?
Coler: [LAUGHTER] There was just a main street, Kennewick Avenue, and 1st Avenue. And after that, the avenues weren’t very well traveled. But there were a number of houses around, and it looked like a comfortable place to practice. And the old Kennewick General Hospital certainly needed some medical supervision and a medical specialist. So I was happy to look at this as a place to come. It kept me in the West. I was from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Coler: That is my place of growing up. And I wanted to stay in the West.
Franklin: Why is that?
Coler: I don’t know. There was a certain sense of adventure when you’re in your 30s and you’ve had three years of service in the Air Force, and you’ve come back, and you want to settle down, and you’re through with your training, but you don’t want the big city, even though Portland is a lovely town. But it would be a slow place for an internist to get started.
Franklin: Why is that?
Coler: Because so many doctors just stayed. After their training program in Portland, they just stayed on in Portland. Because it felt like home and felt comfortable. But Thelma said, go where you’re needed. So we came down at the invitation of these five general practitioners. And Dr. Ralph deBit is a piece of history in himself.
Franklin: Can you—oh, sorry, go ahead.
Coler: So we decided then after seeing two or three more places that—Kennewick and the Tri-Cities was the place we wanted to practice.
Franklin: Great. What other places did you visit?
Coler: Well, I went over on the coast where I ran into three days of straight rain, over on the Portland coast. [LAUGHTER] The Washington coast was desolate. And I found the dry side was much to my liking.
Franklin: You mentioned that you’d been three years in the Air Force. So were you a doctor in the Air Force?
Coler: No. No, I went into the Air Force as part of weather training. The Air Force was gearing up for a much longer war—this is World War II—gearing up for a much longer war. They wanted to keep a cadre of young men available to train. So they put me in a year of mathematics at University of Washington in St. Louis to study pre-meteorology, which was all mathematics, up through higher numbers. A lot of things that I never would need or use. But then I went out and took six months of weather forecasting, weather observing, and became a weather observer, which was a non-commissioned officer position. So they kept telling me that you would get your rank in the military after you got to your base of work. But I kept being assigned around to training stations and finally I ended up in Coral Gables and had a wonderful time exploring the Everglades, because I only worked eight hours a week out there. [LAUGHTER]
Coler: As a weather observer. So I was very happy to have that experience, even though I never was commissioned as an officer, which they had promised me would be at the end of my training.
Franklin: Interesting. Great.
Coler: I still have specimens that I’ve collected from the Everglades, down there. Snakeskins, different plants. And I attended a course in botany of the Florida peninsula while I was there. And it got me interested in the out-of-doors.
Franklin: Interesting. So, returning to your work at Kennewick, what exactly—forgive my ignorance and maybe some of the ignorance of the people watching this later—what is an internalist exactly?
Coler: So an internal medical specialist is someone who specializes in the skin and its contents.
Franklin: The skin and its contents, okay.
Coler: From the standpoint of the diagnosis of diseases and their treatment which are not orthopedic and not surgical. But that includes everything from infectious diseases to degenerative diseases. And it generally doesn’t include childhood diseases, although I saw some very interesting cases.
Franklin: Such as?
Coler: Such as malaria—in Kennewick. Not from the mosquito biting up here, but the mosquito bite carrying the malaria virus down in Central America, and then the patients coming home and coming down with fever here. Fever, chills and anemia.
Coler: And finding the parasite in their blood.
Coler: We had a good lab at Kennewick General Hospital.
Franklin: So you mentioned early on that you came and you worked with—sorry, can you mention the doctor that brought you up again?
Coler: Dr. deBit, Dr. Ralph deBit.
Franklin: Ralph deBit. And can you elaborate, maybe, on the state of medicine in Kennewick when you came here in ’58?
Coler: In ’58, the five general practitioners were very busy and they wanted an internal medical specialist to refer the difficult or diagnostic problems to. There weren’t too many doctors in those days who were willing to move to the smaller communities. They all seemed to want—the specialists wanted to stay in Portland and Seattle, Spokane. But I was very happy to come to Kennewick, and they were very happy to send me their difficult cases. [LAUGHTER] Because in those days, generalists, or general practitioners as they were called—we don’t have any more today. It’s called family practice today, and it requires a much more rigorous training period than it did in the days of the old GP. But the GPs would take care of something like—would see something like 20 patients a day. And maybe four new patients every day. So they didn’t spend much time with them. If it wasn’t evident what the patient suffered from and what the treatment was going to be, then they were happy to refer the patient to somebody who would deliberate a little more.
Franklin: Okay. So how did—did you see patients from Hanford?
Franklin: Okay. Can you talk a little bit about working with patients who worked at Hanford?
Coler: So HEHF, or Hanford Environmental Health Foundation, had a cadre of doctors which saw patients who worked at Hanford. When I came to town, Hanford workers had to go to that doctor first, and then if the problem was elaborate or detailed or difficult, such as active tuberculosis or a desert fungus infection like coccidioidomycosis, then they would send the patient to me.
Franklin: You kind of laughed a little when you said that last one.
Coler: Well, because that disorder is a fungus infection of the lungs that’s only seen in the Sonoma Valley of California or other desert areas in the United States.
Franklin: Wasn’t there an outbreak of that recently up here? They closed a bunch of county parks in Washington?
Coler: I’m not aware of that, but may be true. Yeah.
Franklin: Okay, interesting. I guess fungus and desert isn’t something that I would assume would go together.
Coler: Well, that’s right, because you’re thinking of something that grows in moist areas.
Coler: Like a toadstool, yeah.
Coler: But this was a fungus that is blowing in the wind.
Coler: And if you pass through and drive through those areas when the wind is blowing that particular fungus in the air, you run a high risk of catching one of those desert fungus disorders.
Franklin: I imagine then that they like loose sandy soils.
Coler: Yes. Loose sandy soil that blows, yeah. We didn’t have any up here, but they would come in from California.
Franklin: Okay. Interesting.
Franklin: So the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation—can you talk a little bit more about that? Do you know much about its origins, or if it’s still around today?
Coler: Well, when the Hanford operation got going, they immediately put in a medical service. They had a superintendent, and they had a cadre of three or four doctors who saw the patients who worked at Hanford. So generally, these were well patients. Generally, they had rashes or they had emotions, or they had injuries from falling, scrapes and wounds, and occasional pneumonia. And sometimes patients would come to work there, because the workforce, remember, during World War II, even at the end of the war, was chosen from people who couldn’t find a job elsewhere, frequently. The country was well-employed, and to find labor and to find the lower jobs, below supervisory jobs at Hanford was difficult. We got patients from the deep South, patients that had migrated in and who sometimes had not been found eligible for work in the war effort elsewhere.
Franklin: Okay. Just going to refer to some of your notes here that you brought me.
Coler: Mm-hmm, sure.
Franklin: So, here we go. I had a question here. So as a part of your 53 years practicing medicine, did you treat families who reported to work at Hanford, and what were your experiences with them and overall feeling towards the work at that site?
Coler: Generally, these were healthy patients. Hanford Environmental Health took care of the workers out there, but their families frequently had to seek medical care in the general practitioners and specialists who were out in the community. So we had good surgical help, and we had good diagnostic help. So I was not a pioneer in any sense of the word, but it was interesting, because I knew I was seeing unusual cases that never would be seen by me if I had stayed in the big city.
Franklin: Can you—without compromising any personal or medical information, can you talk a little more about some of those unusual cases?
Coler: One time I was called up to Kahlotus—I was called up north of Richland to see a woman who was in a stupor. The doctor could not hear a heartbeat. I went up on my afternoon off, on the call, to see her in consultation. Went in to find a woman lying down, weakened, hardly able to talk, and whose heartbeat I couldn’t hear with the stethoscope. I presumed that she had a pericardial effusion. That is, fluid was impacting—fluid in the heart sac was impacting the heartbeat and preventing the heartbeat from being heard, and from being effective in creating circulation by the heart. So I asked for a trocar, which is a big needle, and as I was about to insert it under the ribs, I felt something hard poking me on the other side. I looked down and it was a gun. And her husband was there in the emergency room, and he said, if she dies, you die. She was already very weakened and very—looked like she was on her way into shock and dying. And I plunged the needle through there with a little Novocain, and drained the fluid from the heart sac. And the heart began to beat again and the blood pressure came up and the pulse rate came down, and she woke up. The husband put his gun away. But those were the wild West days.
Coler: This was in the Prosser Hospital Emergency Room. Yeah. [LAUGHTER] So that’s one. But I have many. [LAUGHTER]
Coler: Another one was—a patient ran in the front door of the old Kennewick General Hospital—didn’t wait to go through registration. Ran up the stairs and jumped into a bed and said, call Dr. Coler, call Dr. Coler. So the nurse called me and said they had this hyper excitable patient with a pulse rate of 160 and tremulous and pale and sweating, and we don’t know what’s wrong with him, but he jumped into bed and said to call you. So my office was across the street from the old Kennewick General Hospital. So I ran over there, ran upstairs to find the patient exactly as the nurse described. I figured that the only thing that would do that was that he was on some kind of a stimulant, metamphetamine, but in those days we didn’t have that problem. Or, he had a rare, very rare tumor of the adrenal glands, which was secreting too much adrenaline. Now, the nurse laughed at me, because she knew from her medical studies in nursing that nobody ever sees a case like that. I mean, there’s one per state per every ten years in the United States. [LAUGHTER] I mean, it’s rare. But I drew blood from the—I had the laboratory draw blood for the tests. And then I gave him an antidote for epinephrine. And his pulse rate came down, and he quieted down. We went to x-ray, saw the outline of a tumor near the adrenal gland. And where the adrenal gland would be near the kidney. And I got Bobby Luxon—Robert Luxon, who was a very dashing surgeon in town, to see him. And they operated on him here and removed the biggest adrenaline-secreting tumor that had ever been seen in the state of Washington, according to University of Washington records.
Coler: So that was an interesting case.
Franklin: How big was the—
Coler: It was fist-sized.
Coler: A fist-sized tumor.
Franklin: That’s amazing.
Coler: Now, somebody would say, well, how did it get that big without having symptoms in the months leading up to it? Well, in the months leading up to it, he didn’t squeeze it to put the adrenaline into the blood stream all at one time. He was being treated for hypertension, and spurts of hypertension, but nobody suspected when he came to me—or when the nurse called me to see him—that he could have an adrenaline tumor. Rare.
Franklin: Yeah, sounds like it. That’s really—that’s really amazing. Any other interesting stories?
Coler: Interesting cases?
Coler: Let’s see. Something unusual was happening every three or four months in the practice. But now that’s kind of faded away. Except for the bizarre anemias—pernicious anemia—saw two cases the first month that I came to town. And I was amazed, because I thought, this is a center for pernicious anemia. Or maybe it has something to do with Hanford radiation. But it was simply that Dr. deBit had saved up two cases to wait ‘til I came to town, and then he sent them to me to make me think that this was a haven of unlikely and unreasonable diagnoses. [LAUGHTER]
[W. E. JOHNSON[EM1] ]
Franklin: Part of—one of these points in your notes here mentions W. E. Johnson, who worked for GE and then was the Atomic Energy Commissioner. We actually have a collection of his files on the project.
Franklin: So I think it’d be great if you could talk about this bit here about W. E. Johnson.
Coler: He was a much-respected administrator. But I saw him in his decline.
Franklin: Okay. Yeah, it says here he suffered from progressive dementia?
Coler: Yeah, he had a progressive dementia problem, yeah. He one time got on his horse and rode out across the country, not knowing where he was or how far he had gone. Maybe after he had gone about seven or eight miles, he was lost. Didn’t know where he was. So he simply had the good sense to put the reins down on the horse’s neck and let the horse go back to the barn for feeding and rest, and take W. E. Johnson with him back to the ranch. But they had a ranch up north of Richland.
Franklin: Mm-hm. Yeah, I’ve seen pictures of that ranch. I’d heard of his love for horses, but I had not heard of that particular story.
Franklin: Did you ever see him as a patient or—
Coler: Yes, yeah. I saw W. E. Johnson as a patient on a regular basis at the end of his career.
Franklin: Okay. And that would have been when he was beginning to suffer from progressive dementia.
Coler: Yes, dementia. And we tried some medicines that were popular at that time, but nothing helped. Yeah.
Franklin[EM2] : So you raised your family. Did you have children when you came to Kennewick?
Coler: No, I was engaged to Thelma Cook from Portland. We were married soon after I came to Kennewick. Went back to Portland, had a nice wedding—colorful wedding, nice family. Then she and I settled in to Kennewick and she, being a secretary, managed the secretarial services of my office. And without that, I probably would have gone broke. [LAUGHTER] Working 18 hours a day, gone broke. But she was a—she had a good business head and made the practice pay. We raised four children here. I have three daughters in Portland, and I have Clark Coler, who is chief of staff at the big hospital in Portland.
Franklin: Oh, okay.
Coler: Yeah. Yeah.
Franklin: So what was it like—I guess sometimes people talk or you hear about kind of the shadow of Hanford over the Tri-Cities. What was it like to raise a family in—being kind of somewhat connected, seeing Hanford workers, but raising a family in these communities in the Cold War? Were there any events, or anything that was unique to the Tri-Cities that kind of stands out to you?
Coler: No, it was a good rural area to raise children. They were well-behaved, and joined the clubs at the high school. And came up through the system here. They’re all quite successful. I’m very proud of three daughters, employed and married in Portland, and Clark, at the Swedish Hospital in Seattle.
Franklin: Oh, great. That’s wonderful. How much—seeing Hanford patients, you must have had some idea of the work at Hanford. Did you have a pretty good idea of what was happening at Hanford? Or what was your knowledge and your thoughts and opinions about the work at Hanford?
Coler: When we tried to recruit doctors to come to the Tri-Cities, they knew that the radiation was surveyed, and patients would be—and people would be safe here. But the wives had this abject fear of radiation. They didn’t want to raise their children within 50 miles [LAUGHTER] of a reactor, because they had heard that you could have babies with small heads or you could have deformities, and that it would be a terrible place to raise a family. I remember having two or three medical doctors and their families and their wives come over, and I would take them on a tour of the Kennewick General Hospital to recruit doctors to come here. And the doctors were very enthusiastic. Over luncheon, they were talking about how interested they would be in coming—a growing community, and practicing medicine here. And we were able to supply them with offices and get them started, even though there weren’t any clinics—everybody was in private practice. This was before the Richland Clinic accumulated their staff from the existing doctors in Richland. But the wives were afraid of radiation. One time, when I had three doctors and their wives come over from Seattle to see about moving here to practice when they got through with their training, a windstorm came up and we had a dust storm off the Horse Heaven Hills. And in those days we had dust storms spring and fall. But it was such a beautiful clear day when we began, and by the time we were finished with the meal, you couldn’t see 40 feet outside the window! [LAUGHTER] Because of the blowing dust. I got thank-you letters from those doctors—those three doctors, but I knew that their wives had canceled any possibility of their coming.
Franklin: Kind of an echo of the termination winds—
Coler: Yes, the termination winds, right.
Franklin: Wow. That’s interesting to hear about that so much later.
Franklin: I like to ask about events—big events that happened in the Tri-Cities. And one that always seems to—usually left an imprint on people’s minds was President Kennedy’s visit in 1963. Did you—were you able to go see President Kennedy, or did you hear about the visit?
Coler: Yeah, I heard about the visit, but I was on duty in the emergency room that day. And we had so many visitors who came and needed help with their heat exhaustion that I was busy in the emergency room and didn’t get out to Hanford to see him.
Franklin: Oh, okay.
Coler: But I was well aware of his presence.
Coler: And it was in the newspaper. Of course, a big picture of Kennedy.
Franklin: And his presence probably caused you some extra work then.
Coler: Yes. People that weren’t used to the heat just filled the emergency rooms when we had a special day, such as the boat races. When we had the boat races, people would come from out of town and they weren’t prepared for our heat.
Franklin: Oh. And so that would be kind of a yearly—
Franklin: A yearly influx.
Coler: So we’d have two doctors on-call for the emergency room.
Franklin: Okay, makes sense. I see here that you have left your mark at the Kennewick General Hospital in terms of a medical center in your name?
Franklin: Can you tell me a little about that?
Coler: They named the first medical center where doctors could practice the deBit Building. That was a place where doctors could come right out of training and, without sinking a lot of money into building or renting an office, they could be put to work and see how they liked it. The organization, the hospital, would then benefit from them admitting their patients who needed to be hospitalized into that institution, as well as having staff meetings and having all of the positions filled for the hospital board. The hospital board at Kennewick General was made up of non-hospital people. But I served on it for a number of years and could advise them on medical matters.
Franklin: Okay. And I see that you also—there’s also a Rod Coler Center for Senior Health—
Franklin: At Trios as well?
Coler: Yeah, yeah. So they named that building after me simply because I was here a long time, and I’m still around.
Franklin: Right! [LAUGHTER] Well, I imagine it would have something to do with the quality of work that you performed as well.
Franklin: In some of my preliminary notes here, it talks about the poor—you’ve talked a bit about the excellence of deBit and a couple other doctors that you worked with, but I’ve also heard that there was, in general, kind of a poor standard of medical care in the area when you arrived.
Franklin: Was that to do—
Coler: This had to do with surgery. We had a surgical problem at Kennewick General. It was quite evident soon after I came to town and began to read charts and look at records and do consultations that the surgical services were poor and sometimes not very well diagnosed and treated. So I predicted that the Kennewick General Hospital would close by the state reviewing our records at Kennewick General if we didn’t do something about that. So Dr. deBit, again, made me chairman of a committee to go through the charts of all the doctors for the previous couple of years. It was quite evident who was causing the mayhem at Kennewick General Hospital. [LAUGHTER] He was soon moved on.
Coler: In those days, you couldn’t take away his license to practice, because you would be sued for preventing somebody from working—from interfering with work. We didn’t want a lawsuit against us. So we were able to move him along. But each hospital that looked into the records of that particular surgeon refused to take him, too. So he actually had to retire.
Franklin: I see.
Franklin: Kind of a forced retirement.
Coler: Yeah, a forced retirement.
Coler: But we had—in Robert Luxon, who came to town about a year or two after I did, he was an excellent diagnostician for surgical conditions and also an excellent surgeon. So our reputation was saved, and Kennewick General went on to become quite a good surgical center and referral center for surgery. As was Richland, and Pasco. Dr. Ray Rose in Pasco was an excellent surgeon and diagnostic man. He’s passed now. He’s gone. But he was a close friend of mine and we did many mountain hikes together.
Franklin: That’s great. I guess the last thing I’d like to ask you about is I see that you live in a historic Kennewick home. Can you maybe talk a little bit about your home and its importance in the history of Kennewick?
Coler: The home on Canal Drive was built out of town of Kennewick in 1914. And was the home of a gentleman who was a salesman and trader. He built his home. And when my wife spotted that house, we were living—when we were married and were living downtown Kennewick, we drove by it one day and she says, turn in here. And I said, why? She said, just do it. Turn in here. So I turned in the road that led across the field that came to the old house on Canal Drive. It was just west of Yelm Street—Yelm, Y-E-L-M. It sat by itself; there were no other houses when it was built out west of that. But she spotted that old home and we pulled in and I went to the door and knocked on the door, thinking this is crazy. You just don’t knock on a door and ask somebody who comes to the door, do they want to sell their house. That’s not the way it’s done! [LAUGHTER] She said, I want to live in that house! Knocked on the door, an old man came to the door, and when I asked him he said, yes. He said, in two months I need to move to Chicago to be near my children, and I would be very happy to sell you this house. At that time, he thought that maybe the house might be worth $20,000. This would be with—this was three acres of land on Canal Drive and an old house that had three bedrooms, and a second floor, and a large kitchen which most farm houses did not have in those days. When that house was built in the 19-teens, 1915, 1914, kitchens were small. But that house had a generous kitchen. My wife fell in love with that house. So when we came back to talk to that man, he had turned it over to a realtor. And now the price was $40,000.
Coler: [LAUGHTER] And he was selling—but it took me a long time to pay that off. Yeah. We had to borrow the money and pay the bank to buy the house. But raised four children in that house now.
Franklin: And you said—
Coler: And we were the third owner.
Franklin: Okay. And you still live in the house today?
Coler: We still live in that house today.
Franklin: I bet it’s worth a bit more than $40,000.
Coler: Yes. Well, the land is.
Coler: Now, several people said—oh, it’s a beautiful place overlooking the Columbia River and on a knoll above Canal—above the river, and above the park. We would need to—many people say that they would take down the house and build an apartment building there on it. Because it’s right next to the apartment buildings at Yelm Street. But we like that old location—I do, and I don’t know what my children will do with it when I’m gone. So I’m 91. My father lived to 101. So I have a chance to go on for a few more years.
Franklin: Yes, you do.
Coler: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
Franklin: Well, Rod, thank you so much. This has been a great interview and I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.
Coler: You’re welcome, Robert. I really enjoyed this myself. Thank you.
Franklin: Great. Thank you.
Years in Tri-Cities Area
Dr. Ralph deBit