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Alumni Profile

What a doctor sees

thomas cooper

Thomas Cooper, MD ’78, a retired family physician, still works his cattle farm in Fulton, Mo. Photo by Rob Hill

As the youngest of 12 children growing up on a farm in Hayti, Mo., Thomas Cooper learned to work “from can to can’t.” That was his mother’s expression. “It meant from when you can see in the morning until you can’t see at night,” says Cooper, MD ’78, a retired family physician from Fulton, Mo. 

Even during his family medicine residency, a period of training notorious for long stints of duty, Cooper moonlighted at local emergency rooms to help support his wife and children. He continued the ER work for a couple of years after his residency to pay off student loans as quickly as possible. 

But Cooper soon started a family practice in Fulton. He had all the work he wanted, and then some. “In that kind of practice, you do everything — deliver babies, fix broken bones, do minor operations and assist on tonsillectomies and appendectomies.” 

Private practice was a new world. “Other than having a family of your own, there’s nothing more enjoyable than taking care of grandparents, their kids and grandkids. I knew about death and dying from my training, but I hadn’t known how it affected families. For instance, you see how when a mother loses her unborn child, it affects the family all the way up through the grandparents. When you practice in a small community, you see whole families unfolding. It’s a broad view. It’s the forest and the trees as well as the grass coming up from the ground — the kids. Not everybody gets to see such things, but this was made available to me though medicine.” 

Although Cooper found the work rewarding, it came at a price. “The work goes day and night. It eats you up. I have an older daughter who is 42 years old now that I don’t really know because when she was little I was delivering babies and seeing patients.”

So Cooper went back to ER medicine to have a more regular schedule and more time for family. He woke up one morning unable to see well because of diabetes-related bleeding. It was bad enough to keep him from practicing medicine, but he had a fallback from his youth: farming. Cooper now raises cows on his Fulton farm and calls in help from his two sons when he needs it. 

And he’s still delivering babies, but his new patients are born in barn stalls, not hospital beds. Dale Smith