January 5, 2012

Flexner recalled for compassion, devotion

The halls of VUMC are a little quieter today. John M. Flexner, M.D., professor of Medicine, emeritus, whose booming voice and outgoing personality were a part of the Medical Center since his arrival here in 1954, died surrounded by family at Vanderbilt University Hospital on Dec. 27. He was 85.

John M. Flexner, M.D.

Dr. Flexner was a U.S. Navy veteran who attended Yale University, earning a B.A. there in 1950, followed by a medical degree from Johns Hopkins in 1954. That same year he began an internship in internal medicine at Vanderbilt, at a time when the hospital was located in what is now Medical Center North, and physicians rotated through Nashville General Hospital and saw patients at the VA in consultation.

He joined the School of Medicine faculty in 1959, and over the years devoted himself to treatment of hematology/oncology patients, with a special interest in pain control and end-of-life issues. He was also a tireless educator of students, residents and fellow faculty members, especially about hospice care and pain control.

“John Flexner is one of the legendary figures in the history of Vanderbilt,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine. “His compassion and his devotion to patients, students and his fellow faculty members have been models to us for decades. As a fourth-year medical student, I personally benefited from John’s tremendous course on ‘Death, Dying and Bereavement.’ John’s devotion to education transcended medical knowledge and embraced the development of the whole physician.”

“John provided the best possible care for his patients and he stood by them when that care could no longer stave off their disease,” said Nancy Brown, M.D., chair of the department of Medicine.

Dr. Flexner once said he was most proud of three accomplishments during his more than five decades on the faculty: he was elected an American Cancer Society Professor of Oncology, one of only 17 in the country; he was a co-founder, along with David Barton, M.D., of Alive Hospice, which opened in 1975 as one of the first such facilities in the United States; and he was one of the early physicians interested in pain management, becoming one of the first to use pain pumps. He and Barton also taught the “Death, Dying and Bereavement” course at VUSM for many years.

He published more than 80 journal articles, and wrote book chapters on death and dying and management of pain. He even wrote a first-person account of his cardiac bypass surgery for the VUMC employee magazine House Organ in 1989, in which he, in typically blunt fashion, noted that his pain control could have been better.

His first wife, Barbara, who for many years was director of the Radiation Technologist Training Program, died in 2002. In 2003, in a hospital chapel packed with well wishers, Dr. Flexner married his second wife, Glenda, who survives him, as do four children, 10 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

A service for Dr. Flexner was held Dec. 30 at Christ Church Cathedral. The family requests that memorial gifts be made to Alive Hospice of Nashville.

In a story published last year in Vanderbilt Medicine about the founding of Alive Hospice, Flexner summed himself up: “I’m an academician. I haven’t done any great research, but I’ve been a real good, caring, warm, loving physician. I’m loud and boisterous. I’m demanding. But this (Alive Hospice) was my contribution.”