|JAMES W. WEST|
Dr. James W. West, physician who ran Betty Ford Center, dies at 98
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NEW YORK — Dr. James W. West, a surgeon whose struggles with alcohol led him to develop treatments for addiction and eventually to become medical director of the Betty Ford Center, died July 24 at his home in Palm Desert, Calif. He was 98.
His death was confirmed by his son Bill.
Dr. West did not start out focusing on addiction. In 1950, he assisted Dr. Richard H. Lawler and Dr. Raymond P. Murphy in performing the first kidney transplant. The organ recipient, a woman in her 40s named Ruth Tucker, suffered from polycystic kidney disease. Her body rejected the new organ after several weeks — antirejection drugs had not been developed — but the transplant provided time for her other kidney to begin functioning sufficiently, Dr. West said in interviews later. Tucker lived five more years.
Over time, Dr. West’s interests shifted to the study and treatment of addiction, prompted by his own alcoholism.
‘‘He hadn’t had a DUI, and he had never shown up for surgery under the influence,’’ said John Schwarzlose, the president and chief executive of the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. ‘‘His colleagues would look at him and say, ‘You’re not an alcoholic.’ He would say: ‘My disease didn’t play out like it did for other people. You can have problems with alcohol and other drugs without being on skid row.’ ’’
Bill West recalled that his mother, Shirley, had told his father ‘‘that he needed to get help, and he listened to that.’’
Dr. West, who had received his bachelor’s and medical degrees from Loyola University, began studying psychiatry and substance-abuse disorders. He said that at one point research showed that nearly 1 in 9 physicians suffered from some form of substance addiction. He later began teaching in university psychiatry departments.
In 1975, he and Monsignor Ignatius McDermott, who worked with the homeless in Chicago, founded the Haymarket Center, a nonprofit treatment facility for alcoholism and drug abuse.
The Wests retired to Palm Desert in 1982, but retirement did not last long. That year Dr. West began volunteering at an outpatient clinic for alcohol abuse at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage. At the same time, Betty Ford, the wife of the former president who had struggled openly with addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs, and Leonard Firestone, a former ambassador to Belgium and son of the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., were opening the Betty Ford Center. Dr. West joined the staff that year.
Schwarzlose described Dr. West as ‘‘an addiction physician before there was even that term.’’ He recalled Dr. West’s openness with other doctors about his treatment programs.
‘‘It wasn’t so much the actual medication used; other people were using those,’’ Schwarzlose said. ‘‘It was the attitude. He would look at them and say: ‘It’s the way you treat them. Alcoholics and addicts always feel like nobody wants to treat them. We make them feel like you’ve come to the right place.’ He would say, ‘My doctors and nurses treat people with love.’ I know that sounds corny, but it’s true.’’
Dr. West moved to a part-time role in 1989 and retired in 2007.
James Ward West was born in Chicago. His first wife, the former Shirley Crews, died in 1997. Besides his son Bill, he leaves his wife, Maureen Clark, whom he married in 1998; another son, Raymond; four daughters, Vicky Dingler, Judith West, Pamela Byrne, and Penny West; two stepdaughters, Cheryl Marquis and Sandy Clark; a sister, Catherine Ann McClelland; five grandchildren; four step-grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Dr. West was not a good student in his early years. His parents, when told he would have to repeat his freshman year in high school, sent him to Campion High School, a Jesuit boarding school in Prairie du Chien, Wis.
He attended a school retreat where students were challenged to plan their careers, and he decided to be a physician.
‘‘From then on, it was easy for me to be a doctor,’’ he said in 2003, recalling his experience at the retreat. ‘‘It was already there in my mind. Everything else was just an obstacle to overcome between me and the M.D.’’