By Mark Godi
Physically, there is nothing stopping one of Stockton’s most beloved physicians from working beyond 92.
Pediatrician William X. West remains in good health and gets around fine. In fact, he rarely missed a day’s work until retiring from Sutter Gould Medical Foundation’s team of doctors on December 31. That is where he spent the last three years working after spending the previous 52 years in private practice.
West was the oldest active physician in the city, but has retired to spend more time with his wife Bridgette, whose health has declined this last year. He would not discuss the details regarding Bridgette, but touched on other factors in his decision.
“Medicine has made so many wonderful advances in my time,” West said. “We have all kinds of incredible machines, and C.T. scans that have saved so many people.
“But at the same time, as technology has come along, it seems like things are getting less personal. So much time is spent on computers and less is spent with actual patients. Obviously, I loved my job or I wouldn’t have done it for so long and the people were a big part of that.”
West was born into a Jewish family in what is now the Czech Republic and grew up in the city of Prague. The son of a real estate investor, he and his family left for the United States in 1940, about a year after Hitler and his army occupied the city.
Not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942, West joined the United States’ Army and served four and a half years in Hawaii.
“I was in New York at the time of Pearl Harbor and remember being incredibly angry,” West said. “I had no idea where Pearl Harbor was, but I just remember taking it so personal. It was like someone was attacking me.”
After the war, West went to Germany to attend medical school at Ruprecht-Karls University in Heidelberg and graduated in 1952. He interned in Chicago and later did his residency in Oakland. His final residency work was done at San Joaquin County Hospital in French Camp, just outside of Stockton.
“I was looking in a medical journal and the two highest paid residency jobs were in Bakersfield and French Camp,” West said. “I made $180 a month.
“The only reason I got into pediatrics was because that is the only residency they had left. Everything had just been taken. I decided to stay in the area because I was so impressed with how smart all the doctors were.”
The first office West opened was in 1956 on 2333 California Street, just two blocks from St. Joseph’s Medical Center. There, he charged the standard $5 for initial doctor visits and $4 per follow-up appointment. To get a shot of penicillin was .80 cents. House calls were $7.
Ask West about reflecting on years past, and his mind instantly goes to medicine.
“The thing that amazes me is how far vaccines have come,” West said. “So many illnesses that I treated when I was younger are all gone. You don’t see people with things like polio anymore.”
West often worked well into the night and prided himself as one of the few pediatricians in the area to stitch lacerations, set broken bones, and perform tonsillectomies.
“I stayed busy because I was doing procedures that not many other in the (Stockton) area were doing,” West said. “Things were set up the way they are now.”
Former patient Cindy Nuby begs to differ.
She saw West as a child and then took her three children and grandchildren to him. She says what made West so special was the relationships he developed.
“It was always a long wait to see Dr. West because he was like family,” Nuby said. “He knew who you were and cared about you.”
Nuby remembers when her son Garrett, now 27, was treated by West after Garrett got a cut above his eye during grade school. She was in a panic when she arrived at West’s office.
“Here I’m screaming and Dr. West takes one look at Garrett and says, ‘I got this, you can go wait outside,’” Nuby said. “A minute later, I hear Garrett has stopped crying. Next, he comes out all sewed up and just fine.”
Nuby’s sister Coral Sullivan was also one of West’s patients and took two of her kids to see him. What impressed her most about was his willingness to help those with little or no money.
“I don’t think Dr. West every made a ton of money like some doctors,” Sullivan said. “If he did, he never flaunted it.
“He would take anyone, wheather you could afford to pay him or not.”
West has lived in the same house for close to 50 years, a modest single-story estate in the upper-middle class neighborhood of Parkwoods Drive. His four-door Infinity Sedan is parked in its garage. Much of his money that hasn’t been saved has gone to traveling. West would take time off every few months and went everywhere from Europe to Asia to the Amazon.
His hobbies over the years have ranged from playing the cello, to playing tennis to collecting artwork. There is barely a space of wall at West’s house that is not covered by paintings from around the world.
During the private practice years, his office walls were equally as crowded. Each wall was covered in 16×14-inch frames filled with wallet-size pictures. Patients started giving him their school portaits out of affection, and after not long, West was bombarded with photos.
“A few people gave me pictures so I put them up,” West said. “Then more and more would want their picutures up until my office turned into an art gallery.
“I am very proud to say I still have each and every one of those pictures. They are in boxes right now because I don’t have much wall space left at home.”
To this day, there are a couple of patients that stick out in his mind. The first was a seven-year-old boy, who was raised as one of six children by his single mother. The mother called West one day worried because her son would not respond to her, he would only stare blankly in her face.
West agreed to come by the house that evening, but by the afternoon, the women brought her son into West’s office terrified. The boy had gotten worse. His heart beat slowly wore out as West listened to its beat. CPR followed, but failed.
Examinations of the boy’s body were done in town, before West had the boy’s brain sent to Boston for further examination. A cause of death was never found.
“I can’t remember exactly how long ago this was,” West said. “But it was several years ago and it still bugs me that this family suffered so horribly and never got any answers.”
As for West proudest moment, he cites a time roughly 30-years ago when he got a call at 2 a.m. A woman, 21, was a patient of his and been in a car accident, receiving severe cuts to her face.
The woman was taken to the hospital and the doctor on call insisted that West needed to see her before anything could be done. He showed up at the hospital and told the woman’s angry parents that he would get a plastic surgeon to treat her right away.
The parents insisted that they had waited long enough and begged West to fix their daughter’s face. Reluctantly, he did it and spent four hours operating.
“I tried to explain to them that I wasn’t a surgeon and had never done anything like what they wanted me to do,” West said. “This poor girl had pieces of glass in her cheeks and her lip was cut something terrible.”
About 10 years later, West was stopped in Lodi by a woman who asked him, “Do you remember me?” He told the woman that he did not but that he should because she was so beautiful. The woman then went on to explain that that she was the woman from the car accident and thank him for doing such an incredible job.
“I have never been so meticulous in my life as I was with that girl,” West said. “If something didn’t look just right, I would start all over. I even went over her whole face with a magnifying glass to make sure I didn’t miss any pieces of glass.
West’s phone seldom rings at night these days. His only appointment is going on a daily walk. It takes 45 minutes to get around his block which is shaded with huge oak trees behind Swenson Park Golf Course. Once a week or so, friends will call ask West to join them for lunch.
Even in retirement, though, West has not lost his drive. He has pictures of his ancestors covering nearly every inch of one of the walls in his home office. Next to it is a desk where he plans on writing a memoir of his life.
“I’m not looking to get (the memoir) published or anything,” West said. “It’s just for my family to have. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a longtime and now I can.”
Note: Patient names and further details were omitted from this article to protect their privacy in accordance with HIPPA laws.