The Patient Experience That Made Me a Better Doctor
In my thirty-two years of practicing medicine I have only taken care of one celebrity who ninety-nine percent of the population has never heard of. But Cleveland Williams was a celebrity to me, because I was a savant when it came to boxing. It started in fourth grade when I squared off with the playground bully, Chuckie Thurman on the four-square court. Chuckie was built like a house with wide shoulders, a thick neck, and biceps that he could flex. He had coke bottle eyeglasses and small, sneering eyes. After running through our four-square court multiple times and grabbing the ball and disrupting the game I demanded he stop.
“What you gonna do about it, Weisberg?” he snarled, as he put his chin right against mine.
I took a step back with my right leg and threw a combination right upper cut/hook using all my weight and torque which landed right on his chin. He fell to the ground and his glasses went flying off, the middle part breaking in two. He sat there the rest of recess and the next day came to school with masking tape holding together the sides of the glasses. He never bothered me or our game again.
That experience hooked me on boxing, and I went to the library and read as many books as possible on boxing. For my birthday my parents bought me a book with stories about all the heavyweight champions from John L. Sullivan to Muhammad Ali. I read it so often I memorized it.
I was the senior resident on Internal Medicine call at Ben Taub Hospital in Houston one cold night in January 1988, and I had just worked up my seventeenth admission. It was eight o’clock and my beeper went off; it was the emergency room calling with another admission. I couldn’t contain the anger and frustration in my voice as I heard the details about the fifty-five-year- old black man who was to be my next admission.
“What’s his name?” I asked gruffly.
“Cleveland Williams,” came the reply.
“The Cleveland Williams?” I asked excitedly.
“I guess so,” came the emergency room doctor’s weary reply.
I rushed down six flights of stairs to the emergency room and shouted at the doctor, “Where’s Cleveland Williams?”
“He had to use the bathroom,” came the answer.
In the enormous Ben Taub emergency room there were only two bathrooms. The wooden door to one was closed so I knocked on it.
“Is Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in there,” I shouted through the closed door.
“Yes,” came the reply.
The toilet flushed and the door opened and there he stood. The most famous heavyweight boxer in Houston who had fought Muhammad Ali for the World Heavyweight Championship in 1966. He had aged considerably from the pictures I’d seen of him, but he was still an imposing figure. He stood six feet three inches and weighed around two hundred and twenty pounds. He wore a tan torn jacket with a red flannel shirt beneath it and old brown, mud-stained pants. He quietly said he didn’t feel well so I walked him back to his stretcher and he laid down. We talked for twenty minutes before I examined him, first about his boxing career and finally about the conditions that brought him to the emergency room. He was kind and smiled and didn’t complain at all about being in one of over a hundred stretchers in the emergency room of the county hospital. He enjoyed talking about his previous life as a boxer, and mentioned only briefly that he now drove a forklift. I told my interns that since we had so many patients, I would take care of Mr. Williams by myself, not wanting to share him with anyone. I rounded on him daily, making sure his health was improving before we dove into his battles with Ali, Liston, Terrell, and other famous boxers. I assigned him to my clinic at discharge, and I saw him every two weeks after he left the hospital.
In the Ben Taub Clinic the doctors called out their patients from the waiting room using the telephone as a loudspeaker. I always called out “Big Cat” Cleveland Williams, reminding myself and the others in the waiting room that we were in the presence of greatness. Over the months I developed a true bond with him both as a patient and a friend. I found myself feeling sorry for his circumstances; one of the all-time greatest fighters now an unemployed forklift truck driver. I cashed a check before each of his visits, and I would give him fifty dollars and tell him to take his wife out for dinner. He was always thankful for the money and I think he appreciated the fact that I knew of his previous life. Taking care of him taught me an important lesson about dealing with elderly patients. We see someone who is in their eighties or nineties and tend to forget that they were once a vibrant, active individual who may have done great things before age and disease took their toll. Every patient is special and has tales to tell, and sometimes we all need to just listen to them.
As the months went by Cleveland’s kidney function worsened to the point that he needed dialysis. The doctors in the dialysis unit took over his care and I only saw him one last time. He brought me three photographs which he had copied from the originals. In one picture Muhammad Ali is signing the contract for their fight, with Cleveland sitting next to him. In another picture Cleveland and Muhammad are standing by a ring post looking up at the ceiling of the Astrodome. In the final photograph Cleveland is alone in his boxing stance with his right leg positioned behind his left and is wearing boxing gloves while pummeling the heavy bag. On this last picture he wrote, “God is Love. Cleveland “Big Cat Williams.” I have all three of these photographs in my office and look at them whenever I sit at my desk. On the bottom of the autographed picture I attached a newspaper clipping with the headline “Boxer “Big Cat” Williams dies after being hit by a car”. He was killed near Ben Taub Hospital after a dialysis treatment in 1999. I hadn’t seen him in eleven years, but my first thought was of the time in clinic when he told me to make a fist, and then he put his huge hand over my fist completely encompassing it. Cleveland taught me lessons about humility and about perseverance. He was kind and gentle and thankful for the help I gave him. If I could only have one celebrity patient in my life, I’m glad it was him. By the way, in the first world championship fight ever held in the Astrodome, Cleveland Williams was knocked out by Muhammad Ali in the third round in what many experts consider Ali’s greatest performance.