When most people hear the names Tom Petty and Denny Doherty, they think of two well-known rockstars. But, in the medical field, thousands of professionals immediately think, instead, of two doctors of the same names who were a rockstar duo in the respiratory medicine field.
Thomas L. Petty, MD and Dennis E. “Denny” Doherty, MD met a couple of decades after the Mamas and the Papas arrived on the music scene in the 1960s. Petty was already well on his way to being a visionary leader in the oxygen field. By the time Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers appeared on the rock scene in 1974, Dr. Petty had secured two professorships at the University of Colorado, one in pulmonary medicine and one in anesthesiology.
Petty had become known as an icon in the oxygen therapy field, particularly for his work in making the first efforts in supplemental oxygen that ultimately made it possible for patients to carry oxygen outside of homes and hospitals. Petty also became known for work that led to identification and understanding of a condition now known as ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) and for his groundbreaking work in mechanical ventilation.
Before Petty’s pioneering work led to the portable oxygen devices we know today, supplemental oxygen was widely believed to be harmful or fatal to patients with chronic lung disease. Not only did Petty prove that antiquated theory wrong, he established new thinking for researchers and practitioners and a new way of life for patients.
Both researchers and physicians, Petty and Doherty, met in 1982 when Doherty sought a pulmonary and critical care fellowship to work under the leadership of the man he considered to be a medical genius. Many in the respiratory medical and respiratory field recognized Petty as an oxygen guru. Doherty had been told by someone at Ohio State University, where he received his medical training, that he could never land a fellowship under the highly sought-after Petty.
Undaunted, Doherty secured an interview with Petty at 5:30 one morning and made his way to Denver. In that pre-daylight meeting, Doherty recalled how the two quickly hit it off. “I got accepted for the fellowship. It floored me,” Doherty said.
Doherty became a fellow and Petty’s protégé as the two spent decades working to ignite and improve understanding, adoption and use of oxygen equipment and tools for patients with life-threatening lung diseases.
Petty and Doherty had an incredible mentor-protégé relationship and a friendship that spanned 40 years until Petty’s death in 2009. They accomplished much in their years together. Doherty joined Petty in a annual conference that Petty had hosted since 1958 called the Aspen Lung Conferences, which was held in Aspen, Colorado each summer. Petty promoted his protégé and made him a central figure in co-hosting and planning the respected, peer-attended meeting. After one of the conferences in Aspen, the two went fly fishing, a sport Petty loved and taught to Doherty. On that trip, it took them just two-and-a-half days to write a book together on the subject of long-term oxygen therapy. They also together developed 13 consensus statements while co-chairing the Sixth Oxygen Consensus Conference meeting.
Prior to Petty’s death, during the Sixth Oxygen Consensus Conference in Denver, ironically, he required the same kind of supplemental oxygen that he had brought to millions of patients over his career. The altitude in Denver took its toll and Petty was too sick to co-host the meeting as planned. With little notice, he handed the reigns officially over to Doherty and asked him to take the helm.
Doherty Goes Solo
Doherty, now a professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky, continues to be a recognized leader in all things about the lungs. He currently serves as president of United States Pharmacopeia (USP) – an independent, scientific non-profit organization focused on building trust in the supply of safe, quality medicines. Doherty works with renowned lung organizations, including the American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST), on issues surrounding long- term oxygen therapy. He also owns Doherty Pulmonary Consultants, LLC where he focuses on pulmonary fibrosis, COPD and asthma-related consulting and speaking.
Doherty says he always wanted to be a rock star and was in a band while doing his residency – a rock band called The No Codes. Doherty sang and played rhythm guitar. He enjoyed some of the perks his name provided for him over the years, including securing better seats on airplanes due to misunderstandings about which “Denny” Doherty he was.
Today, Doherty is largely viewed as the icon in the long-term oxygen therapy space. He seems a bit hesitant to accept it when hearing the title that once belonged to his mentor and friend. “I’m really taken back by this. I am humbled and honored, just to have that kind of title. That is what Tom was,” Doherty said. “His are really big shoes to fill, but I always try to do what I can do to assist in these efforts, especially in matters to improve patients’ health and quality of life. In Tom’s words, I just want to be a simple country doctor…”
Guest blog by Teresa Barnes, PF Warriors