"Never Walk Again" - What Hogan's Doctors Actually Said - Part 2

Feb 18, 2021

Part 1 of this four-part series reviewed the contrast between what Hogan's doctors said in the first two weeks following the accident and what his biographers wrote. Part 2 compares how Hogan's biographers portrayed the radical surgery undertaken in response to life-threatening blood clots and what Hogan's vascular surgeon actually said on the record.

THE BLOOD CLOTS AND VENA CAVA SURGERY

Just as Hogan was about to be discharged from the El Paso hospital on February 18, blood clots broke loose from the deeply bruised area of Hogan's left hip that doctors had not highlighted in their reports. With the benefit of hindsight, the El Paso doctors had perhaps foolishly immobilized the area by placing Hogan in a hard plaster cast surrounding his fractured pelvis. For the next two weeks, life-threatening blood clots became the doctors' primary concern.

Doctors treated Hogan with blood thinners, but the clots persisted and fears of a clot large enough to block blood flow to his lungs, a life-threatening condition called a pulmonary embolism, prompted Hogan's doctors to recommend a radical procedure: tying off the vena cava, the primary vein that carries blood from the lower body to the upper body.

Although this procedure would eliminate the risk posed by future blood clots, it would also dramatically constrict blood circulation through the legs. Exiting blood flow would have to find its way through much smaller veins and capillaries. Under even mild exertion, the negative side effects would be swelling of the legs, as the blood drawn to the legs could not find a way back to the upper body, and rapid fatigue of the aerobic leg muscles as the static blood deoxygenated. Over time, it was believed the smaller veins and capillaries would enlarge and aid returning blood flow, but the obvious concern for all was would Hogan ever recoup sufficient circulation to permit him to walk a golf course for 18 holes without exhausting his legs?

The unanimous choice for this treacherous operation was Dr. Alton Ochsner of New Orleans. As with the assessments of the El Paso physicians at the Hotel Dieu, nearly all biographers contradict what Ochsner said on the record, and also depart dramatically from each other.

What biographers wrote:

Gene Gregston, 1978 -  Dr. Ochsner carefully explained the operation to Ben, telling him what would be done and how, and what it would mean.

Hogan raised his head slightly to ask one question: "Will I be able to use my legs and play golf?"

Dr. Ochsner replied that he was certain of it.

And Ben said, "All right."1

 David Barrett, 2010 - Ochsner also had a word with Ben, explaining the surgery to him. "Will I be able to play golf again?" Hogan asked. "I think you will," the doctor replied, and Ben gave the go-ahead.2

Jimmy Demaret, 1954 - Valerie, however, wouldn't make the the decision unless Ben gave his okay. When Ben regained consciousness, the doctor came in and explained the procedure...Ben listened, but only wanted to know one thing: "Are you going to fix me so that I can play golf again?"

In truth, Dr. Ochsner thought Ben would be a lucky man if he ever walked properly again, much less competed in golf tournaments. But he told Ben that he thought his playing golf was a possibility. And I don't think the doctor was telling a lie, either. Nothing is impossible - especially when you are dealing with a man of such proven courage and spirit.3

 Jacqueline Hogan Towery et al, 2014 - ...Valerie wouldn't agree to the operation unless Ben approved. After Ben regained consciousness, the doctor explained the procedure. 

Ben responded, "Are you going to fix me so that I can play golf again?"

It was Dr. Ochsner's opinion that Ben would be lucky if he ever walked properly again, but he did not share his true thoughts with the Hogans. He only offered that if the operation didn't proceed soon, Ben would most likely die.4

[Following the surgery,] [t]he doctors were not as optimistic about a full recovery, but Ben was determined. No one except Ben, Valerie and Royal thought Ben would ever play competitive golf again.5

 James Dodson, 2004 - After two hours of surgery, a weary but smiling Ochsner emerged to describe the operation as "a complete success" and predicted that Hogan would recover [from the surgery] in about a week's time and possibly be up and around, with limited mobility, "in several months."

As news of the successful emergency surgery was conveyed to the received and waiting press corps, Ben's physicians cautiously warned that a lengthy and difficult convalescence was ahead for the reigning national champion, and judiciously avoided making predictions about his eventual fitness to play the game again.

Privately, however, they informed Valerie, Royal, and [Valerie's sister] Sarah that Ben would be damned lucky to walk again without assistance, much less play in a golf tournament of any kind.6

Follow the Sun, 1951 - Scene: Valerie meets with Dr. Ochsner (called "Dr. Everett" in the film) after the vena cava surgery.

DR. [OCHSNER]: Yes, I'd say the operation was completely successful...we've reduced the immediate danger of clotting by tying off the veins...

VALERIE: Doctor [Ochsner], Ben and I have always been very honest with each other. He'll want to know something and I've got to tell him. Will he be able to walk again?

DR. [OCHSNER]: Well, quite honestly, that's difficult to say.

VALERIE: You mean he might not be able to walk again?

DR. [OCHSNER]: Now, let's not hurry things. We've surmounted one serious hurdle, let's face the question of walking later on. Shall we?

VALERIE: Yes, doctor.

DR. [OCHSNER]: Good girl.7

Tim Scott, 2013 - After two hours of surgery Dr. Ochsner described the surgery as successful. It was thought that Hogan's life had been saved, but at the expense of his career. Almost all the doctors felt he would never walk again without assistance, and swinging a golf club, playing professional golf was totally out of the question.8

The biographers have provided almost the full spectrum of possibilities: from Ochsner confidently predicting Hogan's return to golf, to, perhaps unethically, withholding his true feelings that Hogan's golfing career was almost certainly finished. However, Ochsner's statements for publication were unambiguous, as recounted below.

What the doctors actually said:

The day after the surgery, March 4, 1949:

Scott Thurber, El Paso Times - Dr. Alton Ochsner, surgical specialist who flew in from New Orleans Thursday afternoon, said the operation was a “complete success” and predicted a complete recovery for the diminutive golf champion.9

 Associated Press - Dr. Alton Ochsner, internationally known surgeon at Tulane who performed the delicate operation, said that Hogan should recover from the surgery in a week, but that it will be at least two months before the linksman is up and about.10

Three days after the surgery, March 6, 1949:

United Press - A return to the golf courses he mastered so often was in sight today for bantam Ben Hogan as he began recovering from a successful blood clot operation...

Ochsner's skilled hands tied off a vein in Hogan's left leg. Shortly after he emerged from the operating room, Ochsner said the clot would disappear in a week and Hogan's numerous fractures would heal within two months.

"Ben's going to be all right," he said...

He said there was no reason why bantam Ben shouldn't recover completely and play the same brand of golf that had made him the top money winner through the years...

Ochsner was so confident bantam Ben would win a fight far greater than his tournament victories that he made plans to return to New Orleans immediately.11

As noted above, biographer James Dodson wrote that "privately" the doctors told Valerie and Royal that Hogan "would be damned lucky to walk again without assistance, much less play in a golf tournament of any kind."11 However, the El Paso Times reported: 

Following the operation Thursday night, his wife, Valerie, and his brother, Royal, expressed confidence that Bantam Ben had nothing but time remaining between him and complete recovery.13

POST-SURGERY RECOVERY, DISCHARGE AND RETURN TO FORT WORTH 

In contrast to Ochsner's confident prognosis, the biographers reported that the post-surgery atmosphere at the Hotel Dieu was bleak.

What biographers wrote:

Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, 1951 - The operation saved Ben's life. But when he came out of it a heavy cast held him rigid from from his hips to his armpits. His smashed left leg was swollen and scarred. Circulation in both legs had been reduced to a minimum. That Ben could ever walk across a room unaided seemed doubtful. That he could walk nine holes on a golf course seemed preposterous. Experts who knew what tournament golf demands wrote Ben Hogan off the list.14

Gene Gregston, 1978 - Many of those familiar with the usual rigors of tournament golf and the further demands Hogan made on himself did not think Hogan could ever come back. His being able to walk nine holes of golf after such an ordeal seemed absurd.

Charles Bartlett of the Chicago Tribune and Herb Graffis of Golfing and Golfdom magazines, were two of the senior writers in the United States. Both visited Hogan within a few days of the surgery.

"I left the hospital sick at heart, stomach and head," said Graffis, "but hoping for a miracle."

"Here was a gaunt wisp of a man, seated in an ambulatory walker," said Bartlett, "his ankles swollen because of the circulatory condition...I learned then that Hogan aimed to try again, or at least he was going to give it the old Hogan try. Frankly, I wondered if Ben would walk again."15

James Dodson, 2004 - Though they tried not to reveal their own discomfort, Bartlett and Graffis couldn't help observing the grotesque swelling around Ben's ankles, the effect of the newly constricted blood circulation, and the difficulty that accompanied the slightest movement of his legs. The champ's voice was flat, weak and almost drowsy.16

Follow the Sun, 1951 - Scene: Valerie and Ben in Hogan's hospital room, not long after the vena cava surgery.

VALERIE: I've got some shopping to do.

BEN: Say, get me a couple of those sponge rubber balls for me, will you, Val? I want to start squeezing them, you know, want to strengthen my hands.

VALERIE: I'll get them, dear. Now you take a nap.

BEN: And, Val, you know, I think I'm going to get better real fast!

VALERIE: Of course you are.

Valerie leaves the room, closes the door, then pauses in the corridor and begins weeping. A nurse, Sister Beatrice, appears and begins to console her.

VALERIE: Oh, Sister. He's talking about playing golf. He doesn't know that he may never be able to walk again!17

What the doctors actually said:

The day Bartlett and Graffis visited Hogan, March 28, 1949:

Charles Bartlett, Chicago Tribune - "Will you play golf again? Not when, Ben but will you play?"

"I'm going to try," Hogan replied. "It's going to be a long haul, and in my mind, I don't think that I'll ever get back the playing edge I had last year. You work for perfection all your life, and then something like this happens. My nervous system has been shot by this, and I don't see how I can readjust it to competitive golf. But you can bet I'll be back there swinging."

Hogan's sincerity, a virtue never questioned by his rivals, was obvious, but his pessimistic outlook was soon squelched by Valerie, lifetime president of the Ben Hogan Rooting association since their marriage in 1935, Dr. David Cameron, bone specialist; Dr. Leo Villereal, surgeon; Dr. Chester Awe, internal physician, and Nurse Isabel McFaydan.

"Don't believe a word of it," said Val firmly. "It's going to take time, lots of it, but I am sure Ben will be himself again, bones, nerves and all. He has shown me more will power thru this terrible spell than he ever did on the golf course."

The chorus of doctors then chimed in: "We were worried about him ten days ago. He was too indifferent. Didn't care to see anyone, altho dozens have tried to get in. Then he began to gripe, the best sign of all. He isn't satisfied with the food. He hollered murder when we took him off cigarettes last week. He is always demanding an attendant to help him with the warm baths that he loves. We won't say when, but don't worry....Ben will be back...".18

By Thursday March 31, Hogan's last day in the hospital, he was able to walk "under his own power" as he said his goodbyes:

When brother Royal and Dr. Ditto visited him at Hotel Dieu Thursday morning he strolled nonchalantly in the hall to wave an offhand greeting and exchange cheery words.

Still in a robe, pajamas, and slippers, his feat of walking under his own power was the signal for a quiet celebration among his friends at Hotel Dieu. (emphasis in original)19

That evening, the Hogan's arrived at the El Paso train station for the overnight train to Fort Worth. After being wheeled to the platform, Hogan walked to the waiting train and was assisted into the Pullman car.20 Once on-board, the smiling Hogan posed in the aisle for photographers "for at least five minutes."21  The train for Fort Worth left just after midnight on April 1,22 arriving late in the afternoon.23   

 Most are probably familiar with this picture of the glum-faced Hogan being taken from his railroad car in a stretcher upon his arrival at Fort Worth.24 Hogan had barely slept during the 16 hour trip and disembarked "haggard and worn" and "complained of aches in his back and legs."25

Aches notwithstanding, after being lowered to the platform, Hogan was all smiles:

His smile seldom departed as he was wheeled the length of the tracks and carried down the precipitous steps to the waiting room.26

 Soon, Hogan was finally home after 59 days in the hospital.

What biographers wrote:

 James Dodson, 2004 - Safely installed in the front downstairs bedroom of his pretty white colonial house on Valley Ridge Road, finally out of view of cameras and prying eyes, [sportswriter] Charlie Bartlett's haunting question came back with fresh and devastating clarity, and Lucky Ben faced perhaps the most daunting challenge of his adult life. Could he recover sufficient use of his damaged legs to even walk a golf course again, let alone compete in a major championship?

Months after the accident, his doctors were nearly unanimous in their professional judgments that he could not.27

What the doctors actually said:

Four days after Hogan returned home, April 5, 1949:

United Press - Dr. Alton Ochsner said tonight that bantam Ben Hogan who nearly lost his life as the result of an automobile accident will come to the famed Ochsner clinic in "two to three weeks" for a complete physical checkup.

Ochsner, a famous surgeon, flew to El Paso, Tex., in March to operate on Hogan for a blood clot which formed as the result of injuries suffered by the king of the links in a wreck near El Paso.

Dr. Ochsner said tonight the operation apparently was successful and that Hogan probably would play golf again.

Outlook Is Promising - "No one can say definitely," he said, "but I think there's very little doubt but what Ben will play again," adding that he could tell more about it when he examines Hogan.

Ochsner said he had not checked Hogan since the operation but understood the "Bantam" was progressing very "satisfactorily."28

Independent News Service - The surgeon who performed an emergency operation on Ben Hogan said Wednesday that the golf star will probably return to the links.29

Part 3 of the series, chronicling the long recovery that followed Hogan's discharge, will be published on March 3, the anniversary of the emergency vena cava surgery.


1. Gene Gregston, Hogan: The Man Who Played For Glory, 1978, page 11.

2. David Barrett, Miracle at Merion, 2010, page 63.

3. Jimmy Demaret, My Partner, Ben Hogan, 1954, page 83.

4.  Jacqueline Hogan Towery, Robert Towery, Peter Barbour, The Brothers Hogan, A Fort Worth History, 2014, page 85.

5.  Jacqueline Hogan Towery, Robert Towery, Peter Barbour, The Brothers Hogan, A Fort Worth History, 2014, pages 87 and 88.

6. James Dodson, Ben Hogan, An American Life, 2004, page 253.

7. Follow the Sun, Twentieth Century Fox, 1951.

8. Tim Scott, Ben Hogan, The Myths Everyone Knows, The Man No One Knew, 2013, page 21. 

9. Scott Thurber, Ben Hogan Out of Danger, El Paso Times, March 4, 1949pages 1 and 9.

10. Associated Press, Hogan Doing Fine After Operation, Daily News (New York) March 5, 1949, page 84.

11. United Press, Hogan Improves From Operation, The Alva Review-Courier, March 6, 1949, page 10.

12. James Dodson, Ben Hogan, An American Life, 2004, page 253.

13. Scott Thurber, Ben Hogan Out of Danger, El Paso Times, March 4, 1949pages 1 and 9.

14. Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, He Follows the Sun Again, Reader's Digest, March 1951, page 77.

15. Gene Gregston, Hogan: The Man Who Played For Glory, 1978, pages 11 and 12.

16. James Dodson, Ben Hogan, An American Life, 2004, page 254.

17. Follow the Sun, Twentieth Century Fox, 1951.

18. Charles Bartlett, Leaner Ben Hopes to Get Back to Game, Chicago Tribune, Match 29, 1949, page 28.

19. Jack Murphy, Well-Wishers Greet Hogan At End of 59-Day Journey, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 2, 1949, pages 7 and 9.

20. United Press, Ben Hogan on way home, Daily News (Los Angeles), April 1, 1949, page 42; Associated Press Wirephoto of "Golfer Ben Hogan, pale after almost two months hospitalization," Corsicana Daily Sun, April 2, 1949, page 8.

21. Jack Murphy, Trip Home, Ben Maintains Cheery Humor Despite Strain, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, February 3, 1949, page 19; Acme Telephoto of "Ben Hogan on his feet for the first time in almost two months," Daily News (Los Angeles), April 1, 1949, page 41. 

22. Ben Hogan To Leave Early Friday, El Paso Times, March 30, 1949, page 1.

23. Associated Press, Ben Hogan Taken Home To Recover From Injuries, Corsicana Daily Sun, April 2, 1949, page 8.

24. A Champion Proves They Can Come Back, Life Magazine, January 23, 1950, page 22.

 25. Jack Murphy, Well-Wishers Greet Hogan At End of 59-Day Journey, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 2, 1949, pages 7 and 9.

26. Jack Murphy, Well-Wishers Greet Hogan At End of 59-Day Journey, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 2, 1949, pages 7 and 9.

27. James Dodson, Ben Hogan, An American Life, 2004, page 256.

28. United Press, Surgeon Hopeful Of Hogan's Return, The Journal Herald, April 6, 1949, page 12.

29. Independent News Service, Little Doubt, Hogan to Play Again, Long Beach Independent, April 7, 1949, page 23.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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