In 1981, I met the smartest man I’ve ever known.
His name was Dr. Bohdan Hordinsky, and for most of the time I knew him, I only knew him as a small-town, country doc, who had a thick accent, and a brain full of knowledge. I didn’t really learn about him until 1991, when they had Doc’s 80th birthday. By then he was “semi-retired”, which means he worked most mornings, and took afternoons off, except when someone called and needed to see him, or he was bored, or because he simply wanted to go back to work.
Because to Doc Hordinsky, working was life. And serving others was his mission and joy. He was a true hero, around the world. And most people have never heard of him.
But those that met him once, never ever forgot him.
Doc was born in 1911 in the Western Ukraine to an aristocratic, intellectual family of scientists and artists. The Hordinsky family has always held scholarly pursuits in high esteem, something that was passed on from his parents, and that he, in turn, passed on to his children. This was to be true throughout his life, and he passed this on to everyone he met.
Doc survived many things with his family, including being in occupied countries during World War II. He graduated from Medical School in Lviv, Ukraine in 1935, even having as one of his teachers – the father of psychiatry – Sigmund Freud, who Doc claims taught him how to listen. He recalled “Freud told us, ‘Take as much time as you need with each patient. Don’t look at your watch, but if you have to, take his pulse – and then look.'”
Dr. Hordinsky was, at various times, the physician to some very prominent people in the Ukraine. Including during World War II. I personally was told by Doc that he was Josef Stalin’s personal physician for a while. He also told me that he used to watch another famous man walk to work every day, before he became famous. This man was Adolf Hitler. I asked him once about that, and whether he was ever tempted to “not” take care of those men, especially after learning what those men were doing in his country. But he was a dedicated man, and his Hippocratic Oath was his life’s motto. First do no harm.
As WWII raged around him, Doc provided what aid he could to Jews that were being shunned, then persecuted. He treated their medical needs when others were being executed for simply providing them with food. When the Jews were in hiding, and someone would die, Doc would quietly sneak the bodies out, piece by piece, in his doctor’s bag, so that they would not be found by the Germans.
He was also pursued by the Germans, who wanted him to serve in the SS as their doctor, because he was considered the “Perfect Aryan”. Doc, however was “always too sick”. He would fake high blood pressure with caffeine shots, and sugar injections to emulate the onset of diabetes.
When Doc finally escaped the war with his family, including his wife, Irene and children, Jerry and Walter, he came to the United States, searching for the chance for his children to learn and grow in an environment of freedom. His daughter Maria was born some years later, in the same year he opened his office in my hometown.
Once, I was given a chance to ask him some questions for a research paper, and he told me about coming to the United States, and his welcome, and his reason for moving his family to North Dakota. He told me “When we came to the States, I applied to many hospitals, and they all told me that they didn’t want a German doctor, because people were bitter about the war. When we were offered a home, and practically begged by the community to come to North Dakota, which was so much like our beloved Ukraine, we jumped at the chance. We have never regretted our decision. And when those large-city hospitals came back to me, years later, and begged me to come to them, because of my reputation, I told them ‘You didn’t want me when I first got here because of my heritage, and now I don’t want you because of the same reason.’ Even though we were Ukrainian, not German, it didn’t matter. I was welcomed with my family into this community with open and grateful arms, and I could not turn my back on those people.”
Doc did many things that gained him world-wide renown, including helping to develop medication to dissolve gallstones, which was later discovered to also lower cholesterol. He specialized in skin diseases and allergies. He had remarkable success with a medicine to control asthma. But he was always certain that the real key was the patients.
In 1987 a newspaper in Fargo quoted him as saying “You can trust machines too much; of course, machines are good, but they make mistakes… some physicians rely so much on sophisticated equipment that they forget to listen to the patient.”
In 1991, my hometown held something called “Doctor Hordinsky Days”. It was a celebration of their most-famous and most-humble physician. A map of the globe was placed on a stand, and everyone that came put a pin in the map for where they came from. There were pins in that map from all over the world, including Japan.
Doc and his wife, Irene, also traveled back to their beloved Ukraine on a regular basis, taking supplies like shoes and other things that we take for granted back with them. They would even buy a car, have it stripped of the valuable things, like the stereo (because they would be stolen and sold on the black market), and they would give these things away when they got there.
For the whole time I knew the Doc, he always prized education above all.
Doc never charged the teachers that came to see him, or their families. He wanted them to spend their money on other things, not on him. He knew that small-town teachers don’t get paid much, and he wanted to give back to his community as much as he could.
I always swore that Doc had a photographic memory. He had a wall in his office that was full of nothing but medical books and magazines. If you had a question, he would go to exactly the magazine or book he wanted, flip to the page, and point out exactly the answer.
He was an amazing man, a true hero to all the people that met him, and is greatly missed by the community. He diagnosed EldestDaughter’s allergy to milk, when we couldn’t figure out what was making her sick all the time. His advice? “One serving of milk a day, and no more. She will grow out of it, given time.” He was right.
Doc Hordinsky was a simple country doctor.
Doctor Bohdan Z. Hordinsky was an International Hero.
He was a man who loved his family, his community, and his work. In that order.
P.S. I forgot to add earlier, that much of the information for this post, other than personal quotes he told me himself, came from the Doctor Hordinsky Cookbook that was created and published by my hometown, in honor of the Doc, for the celebration in 1991.