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Air Force captain, years teaching surgery, and decades more as a pioneering heart surgeon—all distinctions that belong to this plainspoken country boy from West Tennessee. But Dr. Bob Richardson started in much less ambitious circumstances. He hails from Henry County, where he began school in a one-room schoolhouse, was salutatorian in a graduating class of 12, and had only a 1.3 GPA after his first year at Bethel College. He’s come a long way since those humble beginnings.
Along the path from there to his life in healthcare are a good bunch of stories. But, he says, “the story between the lines is, I set out to fulfill a promise.”
In January of 1954, after leaving college and going to work, Bob was preparing to move to Nashville to train as a diesel mechanic when he got sick. Infectious hepatitis left him bedridden for two months and 40 pounds lighter.
“I thought I was going to die,” says Richardson. “And I said, ‘God, let me get well, and I’ll spend my career helping sick folks.’ And I got well.”
A promise kept—lives changed
He never forgot his promise—good news for generations of medical students, countless patients and Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, where he worked for more than 20 years as a surgeon. Richardson even had his own operating room—Room 23.
“When I came down here to Methodist, they said, ‘Man, we’d love to have you. Come on in. You can have Room 23.’ And for the next two decades, my crew rolled up to Room 23 and we did our business.”
Over time, he’s been privy to firsts and innovations. During a short fellowship at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston, he assisted during the application of the world’s first artificial heart in 1969. He learned how to do a heart bypass during a time when the procedure was still being developed.
“The first bypass I ever saw,” he said, “is the first one I ever did. I’ve done hundreds after that, though. Thousands.”
Laying a foundation for greatness
For Richardson, it was never about accolades. It was about keeping his promise every day.
“I laid myself down a challenge, and I just tried to meet it,” he says.
He remembers his time in Room 23 fondly and remains a solid supporter of Methodist. He says they, also, keep their promise.
“I like the way their patients are respected and taken care of. They’re true to their creed. They’re taking care of the people.”