Former St. Charles chief surgeon pursued diverse passions

Dr. Thomas W. Adams Dec. 8, 1923 — March 6, 2009

By Scott Hammers / The Bulletin

Published Apr 24, 2009 at 05:00AM

Dr. Thomas W. Adams, who helped develop the first intensive care unit at what’s now St. Charles Bend and served as the hospital’s chief of surgery in the 1970s, died March 6 in Bend at the age of 85.

Born Dec. 8, 1923, in Des Moines, Iowa, Adams grew up in Illinois and Oklahoma, fishing, hunting and riding horses, developing a taste for the outdoors he maintained throughout his life.

After marrying Marian Besley in 1945, Adams entered Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. He joined the Air Force and with his young family, traveled from military base to military base honing his surgical skills.

Daughter Cindy Adams said her dad was on the verge of being sent overseas for the Korean War when she was born. With the birth of his fourth child, Adams became ineligible for deployment, and stayed in Austin, Texas, performing surgery on soldiers who’d been sent home after being injured in action.

His time in Austin was a total education in surgical technique, Cindy Adams said, but emotionally difficult for him at times.

“I remember one of the things he said to me, if those blankety-blank dummies in Washington saw what I saw, they’d think twice about using these beautiful young boys for cannon fodder,” she said.

After his time in the Air Force was up, Adams opened his first private practice in Sacramento, Calif., then moved his family to Bend in 1961.

Retired urologist Bill Ellis started at St. Charles in 1962, just three months after Adams. The two became good friends, spending many days hunting and fishing together.

Ellis said Adams “brought a lot to the hospital,” demanding excellence from his fellow surgeons.

His competitive nature carried through to his recreational activities, Ellis said, where he was compelled to outdo his companions.

“He was a very competitive guy. I’d go fishing with him, and the 14-inch fish that he caught, in a few years, it was a 20-incher,” Ellis said with a laugh. “He never measured his fish accurately.”

Adams had a variety of interests, everything from bread making to Western movies, from gardening to computer programming. For a time, he served on the Mt. Bachelor Ski Patrol.

Neurosurgeon Michael Kendrick came to Bend in 1979 and worked with Adams at St. Charles. A few years later, Kendrick moved to a house across the street from Adams, who had taken up another pursuit, beekeeping.

Kendrick’s home had a swimming pool, and before long, it started filling up with drowned bees.

“It was a heck of a mess. Here were all these bees all over the place,” Kendrick said. “When I saw him, I went, ‘Tom, what are you doing with all these bees around here? They’re drowning in my swimming pool.’ And he said, ‘Well, how do you know they’re my bees?’”

Kendrick said Adams wasn’t always so lighthearted, especially while at work. He recalled a time when Adams was given a preliminary cancer diagnosis, and for a short time, he was excessively kind and generous and understanding to everyone around him.

When Adams learned he’d be OK, it was only a few days before he was back to his “crusty self,” Kendrick said.

“He was a fairly demanding guy in the operating room, wanted everything to be just so,” Kendrick said. “He was proud of good surgical work, and he was a good surgeon, and was well thought of by the other surgeons.”

Fast cars were another life-long passion for Adams. He drove a Porsche around Bend in the ’70s, Cindy Adams said — a rare sight in those days — and devised a system where if he hit his garage door opener at just the right time on the drive home, he could be inside and behind the closed door before the pursuing police car could catch up.

Cindy Adams said the local police were generous with her lead-footed father in those days — they knew where he lived, and most likely knew he wasn’t really on his way to the hospital every time he got pulled over speeding, she said.

“They’d follow him to the hospital, and my dad would park in the doctor’s parking and go in and make rounds a second time just to get out of the ticket,” she said. “He was funny.”

Adams was preceded in death six months to the day by his wife. He was also preceded in death by his oldest son. He is survived by four children, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. A private family service was held earlier.