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Kerlan probably is right. And his own physical condition is a good example of what he's talking about. During his med-school days at the University of Southern California, he began to notice pains in his back and legs, strong enough to cause him agony during any kind of strenuous physical activity. While he was in the Army the trouble was diagnosed as a slipped disc, and arrangements were made to operate. Fortunately for Kerlan, the medical unit that was scheduled to perform the operation was shipped out before it could be done. A year or so later a young Army doctor in Pasadena spotted the real source of the pain: rheumatoid spondylitis. "Missing out on that operation was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me," Kerlan says today. "Because this disease can simulate a ruptured disc in its early stages." The ailment, a form of arthritis, not only is not curable but is progressive, and probably means a near-complete loss of mobility for Kerlan in the years ahead. If he is aware of this—and he must be—he has never made the slightest show of concern.
Once the Dodgers moved into their new stadium in Chavez Ravine, Kerlan became a permanent nightly fixture in the press-level box alongside the broadcasting booth of Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett. Now the Dodgers were beginning to get the feel of this jovial, well-adjusted man, who would be in the clubhouse with them each evening before the game, playing cards or kibitzing, sharing in their jokes or problems.
Vin Scully, who has had a lot of time to observe Kerlan, professionally and socially, says, "He didn't need this job, being out every night. But it has served a tremendous psychological need, because Doc had to experience the vicarious thrill of being a jock. He couldn't be one himself because he was sick, but it was the next best thing for him to be in the clubhouse with the sweat and the liniment, and he could live with these kids. He was thrilled when they won, he was flat when they lost. He could go into the dugout and the clubhouse and talk with these guys and clown with them, and they respected his need for their company even if they might not know why it was.
"This is what gives him the great rapport with the athletes, whether it is baseball or basketball or hockey. They feel at heart he's an athlete. He's also anything but stuffy. Bob would just as soon be telling the players a dirty joke, which they love, and they would tell him a dirty joke. He's really one of the boys.
"Also," Scully continues, "the players couldn't con him any. They see him all doubled up with arthritis, and they respect his pain. They don't know anything about it really, but each guy says, gee, I understand he takes 30 pills a day or 60 aspirin a day or whatever it is, and the players respect that."
According to Scully, a major instrument in the orchestration of Kerlan's career has been his wife Rachel, an exceptionally beautiful, dark-haired and quietly shy lady who came from a ranch near Yuma. They met while she was studying to be a nurse and Kerlan was an intern at County Hospital, and they married 19 years ago when their combined salaries were $38.50 a week. When Kerlan opened his first office Rachel was his nurse, bookkeeper, receptionist and general factotum. There were times during that early struggle when a patient would inquire how much he owed, and Doc would say, "You'll have to ask the nurse on the way out." Later he would ask Rachel what she had charged, and often she would admit, "Oh, I didn't have the heart to charge him anything."
Their progress up the financial ladder was slow but steady, not unlike the progress of the rheumatoid spondylitis down Kerlan's back. Through it all, Rachel has been understanding, but, as Scully puts it, "not overly sympathetic. If she had been overly sympathetic," he says, "Doc might have been finished years ago."
Scully tells of the time Kerlan bought a bike and a sweat suit and decided to cycle around the neighborhood each day to keep in shape. On his maiden voyage he took a violent spill before he got out of the driveway, and Rachel, who was watching from the front door, broke up laughing. So instead of ending his trip on the living-room couch with hot and cold compresses, Kerlan remounted with teeth clenched and was off again.
The catalyst for Kerlan's fame, the instrument that converted him from an unknown local orthopedist into a national sports figure, was Sandy Koufax's arm. Kerlan's first efforts on behalf of that golden limb were in the summer of 1962, when Koufax developed an arterial blood clot in his left hand while trying to learn to hit left-handed so he would not have to expose his left elbow when batting. "He was given some medication directly into the artery of the arm, which dissolved this clot," Kerlan recollects, "and he had immediate improvement of his situation. Another day or two and he might have had complete loss of circulation in his index finger, which could, of course, have resulted in portions of the finger being lost.
"The other thing was the elbow, and I'll never forget that. I was at home—it was April Fool's Day—and Buzzie called from Florida. He said Sandy's elbow was all swollen up. Sandy was pitching very well at the time, so I thought I'd play a little joke, and I just said, 'Sure it is,' and hung up. Buzzie called right back and said he was serious and was flying Sandy home, and that's when we first made the diagnosis of his traumatic arthritic condition.